Irwin Goldman is the country's leading authority on the table beet. To be precise, he's the only authority. When I left Goldman, a beet breeder at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, a message asking if he might talk, he returned the call immediately and cried, "I'd love to! There aren't enough people who want to talk about beets!"
Table beets, it seems, aren't much grown commercially anywhere in America. While the United States devotes a staggering 1.4 million acres to growing a cousin of theirs, sugar beets, big tough plants fit only for sugar extraction and livestock fodder, Goldman estimates that we grow fewer than 8,000 acres of table beets, more than half of these in Wisconsin.
Part of Goldman's funding has come to breed seeds for red, redder and reddest table beets to explore the use of their pigments, called betalains, as natural food dyes. Intermittently over the years, beets have been used to color Kool-Aid, Yoplait, Ben & Jerry's, Jell-O, salami, potato chips and pasta. The red we see in beets is "actually two colors," Goldman says, "a bluish red, produced by a compound called betacyanin, and then betaxanthin, which is yellow. Bright yellow."
Government scientists are discovering nifty anti-oxidants in these betalains. Some pass straight through us. How much we retain is unclear. "You aren't what you eat," says Goldman, quoting a laboratory aphorism. "You are what you don't excrete."
The beets we know were selected over thousands of years by gardeners who fancied the brightest specimens. Romans liked the red ones enough for the vegetable's alternate name to have been "Roman beet." Some chefs claim that the gold and striped ones have superior flavor, but Goldman rejects that.
"Flavor has absolutely nothing to do with color," he says. "It's completely unrelated."
Variety can affect flavor. Some chefs commend the turnip-shaped "Egyptian" varieties, others praise classic "globe"-shaped beets. The differences, explains Goldman, have to do with three things: variety, the soil and the climate. Size matters too: The younger the beet, the more tender the root and leaves.
Emily Green writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.