Beet greens

Originally published in The Northern Agrarian, May 2008.

When I was young my parents tended a small garden: Peas, tomatoes, lettuce, parsley, zucchini, beets. All this in the small backyard of a small house in a medium-sized northern town, sheltered from a major highway by a cinder-block laundromat. My mother pickled beets, canned apple butter and pear preserve, baked wheat bread twice a week. A cry of rebellion against the confines of urban life, I might say, but my parents are not the cry-of-rebellion type. When I was seven we moved to the country, to a bigger house with a vast backyard in one of the most fertile patches of land on the planet. That first summer they planted a big garden, maybe too big. I grew a dozen ears of corn. Zucchini swelled. Groundhogs descended. The following year they never got around to the tilling, and they never gardened again.

For years afterward my mother bemoaned the impossibility of obtaining beet greens. When she thinned the beets from her own garden she cooked the baby beets with their greens, sweet and tender, served them with butter and salt. My father and I missed them, too. But no supermarket sells them. Beet greens are the byproduct of small gardens, of the gardener’s refusal to waste the precious space between the swelling roots. A farmer growing beets for wholesale could never afford to overplant and thin by hand. Hardly anyone eats beets anyway, I suppose; there’s barely a market. Even the farm stands dotting our Pennsylvania roads, big ones with seasonal staff and rickety card tables with honor-system cash boxes, stuck with tomatoes, zucchini, snow peas, peppers. Every spring we inspected the offerings: Nothing. We went without. Yet there we stood on an acre of the richest soil imaginable, the self-styled Garden Spot of America. You want beet greens? All you have to do is plant some! Instead beet greens became, in family lore, the wasted heritage of lost generations, our exemplar of things they don’t make like they used to.

Life intervened, as they say. My mother had two growing kids and then three to tend; my father’s job grew more demanding. When I was young so were they, and it was the seventies, when the flotsam and jetsam of agrarian life drifted unmoored through the culture and washed up in odd places. Then it was the eighties and they were older. Something about finding yourself in your mid-thirties with small children saps your desire to be different. Easy enough in your twenties to experiment with alternative lifestyles — and let’s face it, serious gardening is an alternative lifestyle in most of America — but children have a way of dragging you back into the mainstream. Simply being different takes time and work and energy, and so do children. Something has to give.

And yet: When children are young is the most important time to garden — or to do anything else we find meaningful and important — because what their families do when chlldren are young is what they will grow up thinking is normal. That example will be what they follow without thinking or fall back on when they don’t know what else to do. They can always rebel against it later, but either way, it will define them. The child who grows up vowing to do the opposite of everything his parents did is no less the product of his upbringing than the one who unthinking follows in their footsteps. Plenty of us find our values through rebellion, but individual rebellion is an iffy path to a better world. If we want our values to become mainstream, our children will have to grow up thinking they’re normal. If we value reading, they ought to see us read; if we value art, they ought to see us creating; and if we value nature, they ought to see us working in it. We can’t control what they learn from it, but at least we can set the example.

What did I learn from beet greens? Not what was expected or intended, if any lesson was. When I was just old enough to recognize it as normal, we had a garden and fresh greens. Then we didn’t, and we missed them, but nobody did anything about it. What I learned was that you can accomplish a lot for yourself when you quit pining for the good old days and do what you can, now, today.

Now I, too, have a young child and work that has grown more demanding than I meant it to. This year, for the first time since my daughter was a baby, we found time — made time — for a serious garden. At the moment it overflows with greens. Until last month I had never seen my daughter more than nibble at a piece of lettuce, but now if I ask her what she wants for dinner, she suggests salad from the garden. And she eats with relish a mix of kale and mustard and turnip greens that I at her age surely would have sniffed at.

We did not, however, grow beets. I brought some beet greens home from the market a few weeks ago and, predictably, my daughter hated them. She loves beets, loves greens, loves Swiss chard which is botanically identical to beet greens; she hates beet greens. But then, we didn’t grow them ourselves. Whatever lessons she learns from all this will be her own, and nothing I could predict.