Today we've got something a little new. A comrade-across-the-table has graciously written a guest post for What I Ate Where. Melissa Weinberg is an artist who farms, or a farmer who arts, currently living in Baltimore, MD. She notes that this piece was begun in fall, but you can still find beets in farmer's markets for the next few weeks, and good prose is year-round.
punctuation: birthday cake.
"The beet is the murderer returned to the scene of the crime. The beet is what happens when the cherry finishes with the carrot. The beet is the ancient ancestor of the autumn moon, bearded, buried, all but fossilized; the dark green sails of the grounded moon-boat stitched with veins of primordial plasma; the kite string that once connected the moon to the Earth now a muddy whisker drilling desperately for rubies."
-Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume
i once held a deer's heart in my hand. i was working on a farm in new york state. a farm where eggs are shades of brown and blaring yellow yolks slosh and glisten inside.
these days i make eggs on weekend mornings. after acquiring my ingredients for the week from the bustle of the farmers market. too many familiar faces. retreat back to my kitchen. crack eggs. chop vegetables. i lose my breathe at least once a day in these leaf showers. when things are constantly falling from the sky. ideas. leaves. dreams of snow. love. dust. daylight. a kind of protracted intuitive movement, this handling of eggs. delicate and heavy as eyeballs, reminding me of my own fertility and expiration.
there were several native apple trees on the farm. one day, two friends went to collect apples from those trees, some deep in the woods. it got dark and started to rain. they still hadn't returned. we talked about going to find them, but eventually they stumbled out of the woods, sacks of apples in hand. kisses evaporated. leaking clothes. and made cider. peeled, cut, and stored apples for days.
the fall is fat. it is plump and pulsating.
its days hinge on the urgency that comes with the expectation of colder darker days ahead.
its vegetables hide underground, feverishly storing sugars. the flesh of its fruits wait patiently inside hard weathered shells.
it is secretive.
it is a season of beets.
the crew on the farm consisted of about six twenty-somethings, most with artistic, idealistic, adventurous and earth-loving inclinations that lead them to desire the experience of long days of hard physical labor producing vegetables. with all the side effects that entailed: the opportunity for solitude and remove from cities, an unexpected sense of camaraderie among coworkers, health benefits of eating fresh food and working til you think you might drop, the possibilities of personal growth through unfamiliar experiences.
the farmer, a rough around the edges and kind-hearted kiwi, almost a characature of himself, was a man with survival skills and instincts to rival a lion's. he was a connoisseur of guns and knives as well as a man with extensive knowledge of plants and animals.
aware of his butchering skills and distain for wasting, neighbors would sometimes call and let him know of a deer that had just been hit by a car within the past few hours and was still on the side of those country roads. he would drive out with another farmhand, manage it in the back of his truck and bring it back to the farm.
standing in the woods on one such day with the boys from the crew, who were all overeager to learn how to hunt and butcher, i watched as the farmer sliced into the animal and pulled back its skin. the smell was overwhelming as we all leaned in to examine, like medical students hunched over our first cadaver. avoiding flies.
the farmer let the stomach of the animal and all of its contents fall out of its frame. coils of intestines followed. a few slices with a sharpened blade and the deer's heart was in the farmer's bloody hands.
you never think of an animal's heart as an object on its own. severed from its veins and arteries and fluid relationships with other organs, the heart is a fat sack of muscle and blood. a perfect combination of the world of metaphors and language and the world of the corporeal. what sustained life just hours before sat meaty and languid in my hand.
the boys butchered the rest of the deer that afternoon. there were pots of blood and water out on the porch. in plastics bags the flesh of that animal got packed into our freezer, with a little left out for dinner.
i chewed slowly that night. gratefully. my tongue as alert as it's ever been with a slightly metallic lingering taste.
i had a dream about carrots (ripping them up from my garden to find them huge and healthy and smelling like soil). i had a dream about the word "galvanize." i had a dream about snow (cold moisture on skin. constellations on pavement. dissolving. dissolved. resolving. resolved). but snow is still a dream and autumn is in full swing. my arms hang and sway from the sides of my heart cage. it is a season for walking. the season i was born. the season i gasp and gasp and gasp.
it is a season of beets. those firey hearts that narrowly escape frost. dense. neatly containing the earth's blood. persistent; they stain hands, counter tops, cutting boards.
beet's thoughts go something like this:
"what are you going to be like when you're old?"
"what are you smiling at?"
"i get a recurring thrill from exposing myself"
"it's ok to be alone and surrounded by soil."
when my birthday rolled around, another worker on the farm made me a chocolate beet cake. i was getting older, the leaves were falling all around us, the end of tomatoes was near. so we ate beets.
this is what beets remind me:
that food is about ritual. a lining of the heart. a repeated turning of a bike wheel. a passage around the sun. that there are visceral ways to punctuate time. a steady knife and a steady slice, deep and submerged into the orb of a crisp apple. hands stained and sore from all the work they've done and all the thoughts they've tried to put to rest.
that there is nothing about food that doesn't echo the body.
that plants are not products. they are body parts. they are disorderly and unsettling. they are limbs and pulsating organs of our little earth. and they have an origin.
(when you taste something of whose origin you are aware, you have held its heart).
that there are certain memories that come gracefully and gratefully back to me and are spurred on solely by subtle changes in the weather. if you are paying attention, this shift of seasons is deafening. terrifying. devoid of gravity. the whole world is suspended.
i am crinkling a leaf between my fingers. i am walking down the street with my eyes closed. i am wishing myself a happy birthday.
i am holding my breathe and when i breath out, everything is falling from the sky.
Beet Chocolate Cake with Banana-Peanut Sauce
1 large beet
unsweetened apple sauce
2 tbsp. water
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. apple cider vinegar
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup unbleached white flour
1/2 cup cocoa
1 cup sugar
1 tbsp. cornstarch
2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
Peel and dice one large beet. Make sure to get as much of the beet juice on your hands as possible so they will be stained and you can remember this experience for the next few days. Place the pieces in a saucepan with water to cover and boil until soft. (You can also used canned beets if you don't have much time, but the red hands are sort of important.) Allow the beets to cool, and then drain them, reserving the red water for another purpose. Put the drained beets into the food processor with 1/4 cup (clear) water, and process until pureed.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Oil or spray your cooking pan(s).
Put the pureed beets into a 2-cup measure. Add enough apple sauce to reach the 2-cup line. This is a very satisfying step if you do it artfully and slowly because of the extreme contrast of the beet puree and the apple sauce. You can make a design or just create an eye of apple sauce in the center of the beet pool.
Add the 2 tablespoons water, vanilla extract, and apple cider to the beets and mix well.
Mix the dry ingredients together; then add the beet mixture and stir until well-combined. Stir for a long time. Stare at one spot in your kitchen while you do it. Think about the last time you kissed someone. Think about the last time you went for a bike ride. Think about the last apple you ate. Make a promise to yourself to do something that you will feel good about. It can be anything.
Bake for 35-60 minutes, depending on the size of pan you use: more for small, deep pans and less for a 9X13 pan. (I used a 9X13 pan, and it took 35 minutes.) Test by inserting a toothpick into the center; it's done when the toothpick comes out clean.
Allow to cool completely before cutting and serving.
1/2 of a 12-ounce package lite, firm silken tofu
2 tbsp. natural peanut butter
1/4-1/3 cup agave nectar, to taste
1/4 tsp. vanilla
1/2 tsp. lemon juice
Blend all ingredients in a food processor or blender until smooth. As you add each ingredient, take a small taste. Remember those individual tastes when you eat the sauce later. (This is where you can mix in some of the beet juice to give the sauce a pink color.)
Refrigerate until needed. The sauce will thicken in the fridge, so it's best to give it time to chill if you plan to sandwich it between layers of cake. Serve over cake.
Makes 8 servings.