You Are What You Eat, If You Think So

by Trista Cornelius

I used to haaaaate beets. 

The smell alone made me gag. The dark, red color looked more sinister than nutritious. And the taste, if I could be coerced into trying a bite, mixed dirt-flavor with sweet. The defiant texture took all my willpower to swallow, sinewy and muscular, pushing back against my teeth like something alive.  

Then, around 2006, I started reading anything and everything about food to create a food studies course at the college where I taught. In that process, I learned about beets and why some people lauded them as a “super food.” Even though the label “super food” is more of a marketing term than something quantifiable, the idea of it inspired me to look more closely, even reverently, at the way foods nourish us. Super or simply nutritious, there is little doubt that dense, dark beet roots contain a universe of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants fueling a body toward wellness. 

My research sparked a belief in me that you are what you eat, that improving the way I ate could improve the quality of my life. Not just corporeal things like cholesterol and blood pressure, but more spiritual things like vibrancy, confidence, drive. 

I believed I could eat in a way that garnered a spirit of optimism and determination that I craved. And plants, in particular, seemed powerful, even magical. After a decade of backyard gardening, I’m still amazed at what one small seed can produce—the color, the shape, and the nutrition, all there just from a bit of soil, sun, and water. 

I guess I believe I’m consuming this magic, this potential, this ability to grow and transform. And living this belief started with learning to like beets. 

My mother-in-law visited us when I was first attempting to eat beets. She simmered some with orange juice, and maybe raisins. I’m sure there was more to it, but whatever she did, the beets didn’t smell bad, their texture was soft and juicy, and I didn’t gag. 

Next, a colleague told me to roast the beets and then smother them in horseradish. I loved this idea because it seemed Old World and sophisticated at the same time. It turned out, however, that I find horseradish unbearably, painfully hot. However, even though the smell of the beets remained repelling and the texture defiant, roasted beets did not make me gag. 

I felt determined to like beets, convinced they were the riddle I had to solve in order to enter the kingdom. They were the key to a better life. Plus, it felt childish to detest a vegetable so much, to remain so inflexible and set in my ways.
After about three years of occasional attempts to tolerate beets, I discovered a chioggia beet at the farmers market. It was sliced in half on display and looked like a softball-sized peppermint candy. The vendor gave me a piece raw. Beets raw? This had never occurred to me. I loved it instantly. No smell. No bad texture. Sweet and crunchy like a carrot. Plus beautiful and whimsical, like food in fairytales. 

In my 1973 collection of Walt Disney’s storybooks that I grew up reading, Mickey and Donald played the roles of paupers who came across enchanted items: a magic bean, a magic grinder, a magic table. In each story, their first magical act was to set a table full of food. I studied these feast illustrations with fascination. Most of the food looked familiar, but there was always at least one mysterious dish that filled me with longing. A smooth heap of something mulberry-colored in a white bowl. Dainty round things, dripping icing, and stacked on a cake stand. Something fluffy, pink, molded like a flower, and topped with round, golden fruit. 

The red-and-white concentric circles of the sliced beet shining in the morning sun against the backdrop of greens that filled the farmers market, conjured in me the same intrigue and longing as the illusive illustrated Disney confections. I’d found the key to the castle. I’d solved the riddle. 

My love of beets started there, raw chioggia beets sliced and munched, added to salad, and eventually rolled into wraps. Then I tried some gold beets, raw, then cooked, and so on until I don’t even remember the first time I ate the deep, red beets I’d loathed for nearly three decades, but I do remember the feeling: power. 

Truly. I felt powerful. Like I’d filled some cosmic gastro-intestinal space with an essential nutrient I’d been lacking my whole life. A Walt Whitman moment of the stomach. Oh, stars! Oh, folate! Oh, manganese! 

Now, I eat deep, red beets and their dark green leaves at least a couple of times a month. I find myself craving them. Maybe it’s an infusion of iron. Maybe it’s all in my imagination. But the feeling of wellness and strength is real and it fuels my efforts to be a good human, to face my own discouragements and often discouraging news of the world, to shoulder on and trust in the good work of good people. It’s a conviction that starts underground, hidden in dark, rich soil and comes forth slowly but steadily. Like the beet’s bright green leaves and the hardy root steadfast beneath.

photo credit: Natalia Fogerty: Unsplash