Food Phobias: How to Make Peace With Beets

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In the sixth month of my pregnancy and approximately the fifth month of not being able to keep my eyes open for more than an hour at a time, I dragged myself to the doctor's office to get tested for anemia. Sure enough, our blessed daughter appears to be hogging all of my red blood cells, no doubt practicing for the day when she will take command of everything else in our lives. Fortunately, the anemia can be alleviated with the help of iron supplements and a diet of iron-rich foods. Unfortunately, that means learning to eat beets.

The problem with beets, as half the world knows, is that they taste like dirt. (The other half—beet-lovers—prefers the euphemism "earthy," but they're not fooling anyone.) As food dislikes go, beets are a popular one. Australians apparently like the vegetable so much that they eat their burgers with a thick slice of beet on top. But in the U.S., it's hard to find people who grew up liking beets. Far more common are tales of negative childhood experiences with canned beets, gritty magenta slabs that contaminated everything else on the plate.

Even the foodies on Chowhound have at least a half dozen threads devoted to overcoming beet antipathy. (My favorite description: "They taste like basement.") And beet-haters were heartened to learn in November 2008 that the incoming president was one of us. "I always avoid eating them," Barack Obama told the Associated Press shortly after his election. Sure enough, beets are nowhere to be found in the White House vegetable garden.

The first thing I noticed was that fresh beets do not look appealing. They are filthy, with stringy roots that dangle like hair on a witch's chin.

Beets are, however, chock full of useful nutrients, including iron. So this expectant and tired mama decided it wouldn't hurt to try to add them to her diet.

I didn't grow up eating beets—not even the canned variety—but my exposure to them as an adult has been uniformly unpleasant. It doesn't help that some of the classic flavor accompaniments for beets, like goat cheese and dill, are also high on my list of food aversions. Beet soup, with its chunks of floating vegetables and handfuls of dill tossed in, is one of the few dishes I can't even politely choke down.

Learning to like beets was going to be enough of a challenge that I didn't want to start with some third-rate beet dish. Luckily, beet salad has inexplicably become a trend in fancy-pants restaurants over the past few years. So I decided to dive in by sampling some top-notch versions. First up was a birthday lunch at Volt, Bryan Voltaggio's restaurant in Frederick, Maryland. I'm a big fan of Voltaggio—his halibut with rhubarb-ginger compote is one of the best things I've eaten all year—so I confidently ordered the Tuscarora Farm organic beet salad and prepared to have my taste buds tickled.

Embarrassingly, I couldn't hide my dismay as I bit down into a roasted baby beet, some watercress, and foamy goat cheese. The texture of beets, chewy but not smooth, has always unsettled me as much as the taste, and my sister cracked up as I lunged for my water to wash down the rest of the bite. Maybe, I hoped, the beet meringue would be more palatable. Although it definitely presented a different texture, that texture was similar to Styrofoam—and not in a good way. Strike one.

Next my husband and I drove to the Inn at Little Washington for an anniversary dinner. We were promised an exquisite dining experience, and once again I allowed myself to believe that high-end cooking could magically cure my beet aversion. The Beet Fantasia was another salad of the traditional roast baby beets, creatively altered beet (this time as a mousse), and the ubiquitous goat cheese. It was beautifully presented, but had the same pungent taste and gritty texture. My husband ended up eating most of the dish. Strike two.

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Amy Sullivan is a correspondent for National Journal and the director of the Next Economy Project. More

Amy Sullivan is a writer and former senior editor at TIME Magazine who covers politics, religion and culture. She previously served as the magazine's nation editor and as editor of The Washington Monthly. Her first book, The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap, was published by Scribner in 2008. She was a 2009 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science & Religion.

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