Article Written By Cleo Lampos
On Thanksgiving Day, our family will gather around a table laden with the usual dishes: cranberries in Jell-o, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, green beans, oven-warm rolls, sliced turkey and pickled beets. Lots of pickled beets, for everyone from grandpa to preschoolers relishes that tangy taste from home grown and canned pickled beets. This love affair with pickled beets spans several generations.
My mother descended from staunch Scotch-Irish, the sturdy music loving type that settled Nova Scotia. Her parents, (my grandparents), tilled the Iowa soil and made a living as farmers. Raising a large brood of children necessitated an equally large garden filled with potatoes, greens, carrots, parsnips, radishes, tomatoes, beans and, of course, beets. As the oldest child, my mother eventually organized the canning season in August, enlisting her seven brothers and sisters as helpers. Together, the family canned the benefits of summer sunshine in their jars to provide nutrients during the long, harsh Iowa winters. My mother claimed that her mother originated the recipe for pickled beets.
As a child on a Wisconsin farm, I recall peeling bushels of apples, cutting out the wormy parts and saving the unspoiled sections for apple sauce. My mother chose to can in the evenings when the kitchen windows provided a cool breeze to counter the heat built up from the canning kettles. We worked many August and September nights, cleaning up our mess before going to bed. We canned peaches by the peck, applesauce, bread and butter pickles, tomatoes, chutney, and, of course, pickled beets. A crock of sauerkraut mellowed on the back porch. My mother ran out of pickled beets long before spring arrived but she saved a jar for Easter so we could dye our eggs a beautiful shade of pink in the juice.
My husband turned out to be a gardener with a mighty big green thumb. From our first summer as newly weds, he planted a garden that expanded each year as it edged out the play area for the children in favor of fresh produce to eat. Because my husband worked the second shift, I reverted to my mother’s preference to can in the evening. Turning on the wall air conditioner in our starter house, I set out with the produce of the day, freshly picked by my husband with a food mileage measured in feet and inches. Ask my oldest daughter, and she will tell how I stood her on a chair in front of the sink to wash the evening’s pick. As our children grew, they helped with various steps in the canning process. Their favorite jars of food included the bread and butter pickles and the pickled beets.
Fast forward to the present. My husband and I live in a suburb of Chicago and are considered to be urban homesteaders without chickens. The raised beds that span most of our city lot boast organic material composted on site. A peach tree yields several bushels of Red Haven peaches. Strawberry beds produce all we can eat or freeze. Okra grows tall, while zucchini plants spread out. Beyond the tomato cages, rows of carrots, onions and beets flourish. In our basement, my husband has built a canning kitchen in which we preserve the flavors and nutrients of vegetables in jars. One of our prized shelves of canned goods is the row of pickled beets, ready for our guests and grandkids to enjoy.
Not long ago, I spotted a muslin bag on which these words were printed: “I eat local produce, because I can.” My mother would have been proud to carry that canvas sack. She would also be proud of her granddaughter who cans vegetables from the farmer’s market near her urban home. From my grandparents to my grandkids, the legacy of preserving the bountiful harvest from the fertile Midwest soil enriches our heritage, our tables, and our lives. Especially the pickled beets.
This recipe is hand written by my mother and taped to my canning book in1972.
- Boil beets. Younger beets for one hour, the old ones one to four hours.
- Peel beets and slice. Make this solution: Equal parts vinegar and white sugar. 4 cups sugar and 4 cups vinegar. Bring to boil. (I use 2 cups vinegar, 2 cups water and 4 cups sugar.)
- Put sliced beets into sterilized jars and add juice until contents reach ¼ inch fromthe rim of the jar.
- Make more sugar-vinegar solution as needed.
- Process quarts or pints for 30 minutes in boiling bath kettle.
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