A Beet That Can't Be Beat

THE REAL DIRT

November 14, 1993|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

Congratulate me. I'm a proud father. My garden just gave birth to a healthy 7-pound, 2-ounce beet.

The garden is resting comfortably, but I'm pooped. I delivered the rosy-cheeked giant.

Being midwife for Mother Earth isn't easy when you're harvesting beets like this baby.

I've raised these huge and tender beets, a variety called Lutz Winter Keeper, for years. Ten times the size of normal beets, they are planted in spring and harvested in fall, averaging 4 pounds apiece. However, the whopper pulled from the garden last week weighed nearly twice that.

Of course, I wasn't aware of its enormous size prior to delivery. Beets are a root crop; they grow underground. Like icebergs, much of a beet's girth is hidden. This one could have sunk the Titanic.

Nonetheless, I'd sized up the beet beforehand and prepared for a difficult harvest. Just thinking about it gave me labor pains.

First, I determined the beet's birth date -- nine months to the day after germination. Then I saw my doctor for a physical exam (strictly precautionary).

Finally, I went into labor Saturday afternoon: I backed my pickup truck into the garden and shifted it into four-wheel drive.

"Can I help?" my wife asked.

"Boil water," I said. "Lots of it."

Then I bent at the knees, huffed and puffed, reached down and tugged. Out popped the biggest beet I've ever seen.

The garden scale confirmed this. The beet was bigger, by an ounce, than the recent offspring of an officemate.

At least one of us used the Lamaze breathing technique; I'm not sure about her. All I know is that my face was redder than the vegetable I was pulling on.

Afterward, I had to fill in the depression left in the ground by the beet. Better that than break a leg.

The effort was worth it. The Lutz beet is among my favorite veggies, though its homely appearance keeps it out of supermarkets. The beet was bred to stay tender at a size when it ought to be livestock feed.

The beets can be harvested as late as November, when most other crops are dead. This time of year, most gardeners are scrounging around the yard, looking for anything edible. Mushy tomatoes. Limp parsley. Even the mushrooms growing on the lawn look good.

A 30-foot row of Lutz beets keeps us in fresh veggies until Thanksgiving, with plenty left over to preserve. The beets will survive a light frost, and colder temperatures if covered with blankets.

(Several years ago, an early winter storm froze my beets in their tracks. There they remained, stuck in the ground, until the spring thaw. Sick at heart, I hauled a whole truckload of red mush to the county landfill. It was a bad day all around; my truck got stuck at the dump and had to be towed out).

Seed companies say the Lutz beet, an old-fashioned variety, has a small but devout following, particularly in rural areas. A West Virginia man preserved 90 quarts of Lutz beets, at which time his wife sought a divorce. The settlement gives him custody of their canning jars.

A Kentucky woman feeds her family of six on one beet, with some left over. "Last year, we ate the biggest one without weighing it," she says. "It was the size of our 2-year-old's head."

I was prepared to boil this year's firstborn when the thought struck me: You'll think I'm making this up. So I dragged the big beet into the office for a mug shot.

(For a picture, send a self-addressed envelope to: Mike Klingaman, c/o The Baltimore Sun, P.O. Box 1377, Baltimore, Md. 21278.)

I will preserve much of my crop, but not the big one. Tonight, that beet goes to its final reward: my plate. Cut into raw chunks, the beet will cook for one hour in the only size-EEEE pot in the house, a 7-quart canner. Then I'll peel and eat it, with butter and salt, its earthy taste a wistful reminder of springtimes past.

The beet is as big as a toddler's head, although the tiny root hairs growing from its base give it a bewhiskered appearance.

I'm glad I have the picture to remember it by.

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