OPINION | Beets and the fight for Minnesota’s future

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Beets will save us. Yes, you read this correctly. Beets will save Minnesota, sustaining us through dark, conservative public policy times and moving Minnesota forward. That’s a lot to ask of a beet but, trust me, beets are up to the task.

I’m not talking about sugar beets, an important cash crop in Minnesota’s agricultural economy. Sugar beets are certainly in the same family but with a very different end use. No, I mean the garden beet, the one that your grandparents grew and canned.

I’ve been contemplating sustainability and Minnesota’s economic future. Of course, my mind turned to beets.

Beets have a bad rap. They’re stubbornly old world, resisting the modern era’s demand for flashy tasting and appearing food. Beets can’t compete with sour cream-and-onion potato chips, three-cheese hamburger helper, cayenne pepper-spiked five alarm chili, Diet Coke or those new intensely flavored chewing gums.

Middle American restaurants stay away from beets as a side-dish, increasing beets’ difficulty in gaining wide-spread consumer comfort. Sweet potatoes may be the new French fry but don’t look for beet slice topped butter burgers anytime soon. Red flannel hash  features beets but I’ll be surprised to see it on the Denny’s grand slam breakfast menu.

Beets require very little time and attention yet they’re not fast food. Roasting beets takes an hour in a 375 degree oven. Then, the beets have to be peeled. It’s an easy task. The warm skins literally slip right off but purple beet juice stains kitchen hands, further deterring inclusion in the daily meal rotation.

No, beets don’t really do themselves any favors yet, if you pay attention, beets are enjoying a popular resurgence. Maybe it’s the persistent economic recession. Maybe it’s a reasoned reaction to the frenzied buy-everything-in-sight moment of just three years ago. Whatever the reason -but mostly economic- we’re slowing down. With life tempo deceleration, beets begin to look reasonable and inviting.

First, growing beets is simple and straightforward. They do well in Minnesota. With staggered planting, the plant’s 45-65 day maturation cycle yields garden-grown beets for weeks. CSA and small commercial produce growers love them and their low cost/steady income stream.

Second, from a culinary standpoint, it’s hard to screw up beets. Provided that they’re fully cooked–steaming, baking or boiling will do- beets’ natural sweetness requires little more than salt, pepper and a splash of balsamic vinegar. My mom fries beets, quartering then thinly slicing them. They taste a bit like fried potatoes only chewier and better.

Third, beets are a marvelous metaphor for all that’s right with Minnesota. Like good schools, affordable health care, a robust transportation infrastructure and smart economic development, beets both taste good and are good for us. We’ve lost sight of that simple observation. In beets, we find focus on the things that really matter.

Beets, like smart, responsible public policy, shouldn’t be cast in ideologically partisan terms. Well-prepared beets, rich in nutrients and healthy promise, fortify us as much as a good education prepares young Minnesotans for a challenging future.

Conservative “no new taxes” public policy, bent on undermining Minnesota’s tradition of strong community investment, has all the sustainability of starchy fast food calories. What seems simple  -the stock conservative declaration that government is bloated and out of control- is, under closer examination, a shell game forcing compounding poor choice alternatives on Minnesota’s middle class just to benefit a wealthy few.

I really don’t care if you eat beets because beets are tasty or because they represent all that’s good and right. Wait, ok, I do care. You should eat them for the first reason, buttressed by the second but that’s up to you. In any case, beets demand and reward a little planning and forethought which, as a public policy metaphor, is my point.

Minnesota does best when we work to strengthen ourselves by strengthening our communities. If a pile of perfectly roasted, cubed beets, tossed in a vinaigrette and topped with a little sour cream or maybe some crumbled Northern Lights blue cheese, helps you to understand my point, great. We create state prosperity by doing the right thing. In beets, we find a blue print for success.