Answer to the Friday Whatsit for October 14, 2010
A number of our guessers went for the pickled foodstuff angle, which is on the right track. Although I have to say I’ve only seen two pickled foods that are red: pickled cucumbers soaked in red Kool-Aid and pickled beets. And these, dear reader, are pickled beets. Thanks to lovely neighbor Gina for correctly guessing their identity as Beta vulgaris, and also for bringing them over to our house in the first place.
There are five main varietals or subvarietals of beets: the common garden beet or beetroot plant which is grown for its red roots (like these here); the spinach beet and (Swiss) chard, both grown for their large, edible leaves; the mangelwurzel, a tough, fibrous beet grown as a feed crop for animals; and the sugar beet, developed in 19th century Germany as an alternative to sugar cane. All these varieties are descended from the Sea Beet that grows wild on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.
Humans have been eating beets for thousands of years, first discovering the tasty leaves, and then developing the root and sugar varieties. The world seems to be divided into two camps on beets: love them or hate them. I personally love them, especially pickled. I blame my Northern European heritage for my love of both cheese and all things pickled. Pickling and cheesemaking are two ways to preserve food through long winters. We forget in our world of refrigeration and global food distribution that for much of human history we grew, hunted or gathered our food, and if you lived in a place with cold winters some food had to be stored for months. Pickling as a process is a close cousin to fermentation. It involves soaking food in a brine solution, which allows certain types of food-friendly bacteria to thrive while keeping others out.
Pickling also adds a lot of salt to the food in question, leading some to discover the joys of electric pickles. There are two kinds, the kind where a pickle connected to a battery will glow (and possibly get really, really hot and catch fire, so be careful with this one kids) and the kind where the pickle itself can be used as a battery to light a light bulb. Other foods often used as batteries include potatoes and lemons. You won’t be able to go green and run your house with them, but done carefully (we are talking about an electric current, nasty zaps are possible) you can have some science fun with your food.