Harvard Beets

Jerri’s Aunt Lydia thought that she was complimenting her young nephews when she told their mother, “Oh, Esther, you are so lucky! Your boys eat everything.”

Jerri’s mother was not very appreciative of the comment. Years later she told her daughter, “Luck had nothing to do with it! We taught them to eat their food.”

She also taught her husband to eat his food. Jerri recalls a conversation her mother told her about that went something like this:

Knip (Jerri’s Dad): “I don’t like peas.”

Esther (her Mom): “Well, you’re going to eat them anyway. We have to set good examples for the boys.”

And so they all ate peas. My mother-in-law could be pretty firm. When it came to food, she was even firm with herself. I can’t remember a single time she refused to at least try a dish offered to her. She would take a serving spoonful and eat it. If she liked it, she would take a second serving. If not she would say, “It’s not my favorite.”

Jerri and her brothers learned to do the same.

Researchers have demonstrated that the food pregnant women or nursing mothers eat influences how their children respond to various foods. Mothers who eat a well-balanced diet of vegetables, fruits and cereal grains are more likely to have children who will have the same healthy diet preferences.

But as many other studies have shown, parents and other caregivers have a powerful influence on the eating habits of children. We teach by example. Jerri’s mother did not drink alcohol, cook with alcohol or have any in her home, except for vanilla and some other flavor extracts. No beef bourguignon or beer-battered fish came from her kitchen.

Jerri’s father would never have dared to bring a beer home, but he once told me that he enjoyed a cold beer after a hard day’s work with the crew combining wheat or haying. Boys being boys, her brothers may well have sneaked a peek of the men enjoying a refreshing bottle behind the barn before washing up for dinner. With such an example, what farm boy would not begin wondering what was so good about that stuff in the brown bottles? Maybe this explains why Jerri’s oldest brother developed an appreciation of Foster’s beer.

Leading by example is the way to help people enjoy different foods. Many if not most of us have heard the dreaded phrase, “Eat your vegetables,” or even worse, “You’re not the table until you finish your Brussels sprouts.” Or beets.

Beets show up fairly regularly on lists of least favorite foods. I take that to mean that a lot of parents have been failing in their duty to help their children develop healthy eating habits, because beets are one of the “superfoods.” They contain lots of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and just enough sugar to make them a good source of energy.

Recently I learned that beets have been used as an aphrodisiac since Roman times and are now known to contain boron, which is necessary for the production of human sex hormones. If my father had told me that eating beets would improve my (nonexistent) thirteen-year-old sex life, I would have asked Mom to serve them every day.

Actually, I have liked beets since I was a child. Like most root vegetables, they grow well in cool climates, so we grew and ate them often. We not only had them at home, but school lunches occasionally featured beets. And most kids ate them. If we didn’t teachers gave us notes to take home so Mom and Dad could have a talk with us. When the horrible canned spinach was being dished out, I was told to ask “for just a little bit.” School cooks didn’t want food to go to waste, so they usually honored such requests.

Harvard beets were pretty popular when I was growing up. No one knows for sure where the name came from, but it sounds elegant, and the sweet and sour sauce complements the vegetable perfectly. Though they do color potatoes a rather unpleasant pink, Harvard beets are a welcome addition to dining tables from the formal dining rooms of New England to the farm kitchens of Kansas and Wisconsin.

This recipe is adapted from The Mennonite Community Cookbook.


3 cups cooked diced beets
1/2 cup sugar
1 T cornstarch
1 tsp. salt
1/4 cup cider vinegar
1/4 cup water
2 whole cloves
2 T butter


Start by preparing the beets. Scrub the beets and cut the stems about two inches above the beets. Save the good leaves. If you are not going to use them right away, freeze them to use in borscht or as a green vegetable.

Heat a large pot of water to boiling. Put the beets into the boiling water and cook them until they are fork tender. The time needed will depend on the size of the beets, but plan on boiling them for thirty minutes or even more. When the beets are nearly done, fill a large bowl or pan with ice water.

Using a slotted spoon, put the beets into the cold water. When the beets are cool enough to handle, slip the skins off. You can use a knife to help or use just your fingers. Trim the stems and roots off the beets and chop them into a half-inch dice.

Mix the sugar, salt and cornstarch together in a two quart saucepan. Stir in the vinegar and water. Add the two cloves and put the pan over moderate heat. Keep stirring to make a smooth sauce and cook it for about five minutes.

Stir the beets into the hot sauce, remove the pan from the heat, cover it and let it stand for at least a half hour. When you are ready to serve the beets, bring the pan back to a boil, remove from the heat and stir in two tablespoons of butter. Harvard beets can be served at room temperature, but they are best served warm.

NOTES: Instead of chopping the beets, you can cut them into eighth-inch slices. If you don’t have any whole cloves in your cabinet, you can use a dash of ground cloves or you can omit the cloves entirely.

2 thoughts on “Harvard Beets”

  1. I really appreciate your column, recipes and reminders of other days, thank you. My mother taught us the same way, a small serving of new things. One of my brothers did not like beets except in a relish with a bit of horseradish in it. He grew some yellow beets one year and brought them to Mom because although they were pretty, they still tasted like beets! I love them in any form I’ve tried, but best when heated in a bit of butter. I think today I’m going to try them in some sage butter and see what that does.


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