"The broth of beet is pleasant to the heart and good for the eyes, and how much more so for the bowels. This, however, only so when it remains on the stove and makes the sound of 'tuk tuk.'"
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Red beets as we now know them probably didn't develop until the 17th century--but they have been eaten as wild, slender-rooted plant species with edible leaves over a broad sweep of land, from Britain to Indian, since prehistoric times. Both chard and sugar beets also developed from this common ancestor.
The Greeks and Romans, in fact, ate only the leaves--and mostly for medical reasons. Pliny spurned the beet root as "those scarlet nether parts." Only in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD did epicures pronounce it delicious.
The 11th century Arab philosopher and physician Avicenna (Ibn Sina), sang its praises and its healing properties in his writings. Early Russian homeopaths followed suit and claimed it could cure tuberculosis, scurvy, and toothache--while Russian peasants believed it worked as an insecticide. During "babye leto" (Indian summer), they would bury beets imbedded with mosquitos and flies in a ceremony meant to relieve them of insect bites.
Samuel Butler, in his Notebooks, remarked that "The beet root is a better emblem of modesty than the rose. The color is as fine; it conceals itself from the view more completely; moreover, it is good to eat, and will make excellent sugar." Surely the last few comments give a spirited definition to the word modesty.
Ironically, Russian beauties--both peasants and ladies in high society--used the beet as a rouge for their cheeks...to keep away mosquitos and attract the opposite sex.