My Favorite Dish Sweet Pickled Beets

Friends Drift Inn Farm – Real Life A Baby Boomer In Appalachia

Preserving the Harvest Home Canning

I believe mason jars are filled with love.

When Aunt Emmie shared a jar of sweet pickled beets, you knew at that moment in time she loved you best. Canning was Aunt Emmie’s gift of self.

Detroit Red Beets, Beta vulgaris, might seem like a lowly dish. But, Aunt Emmie’s beets were special. I have seen family tussles to claim the last scarlet spheres on the Sunday table. Aunt Em scolded, but mostly she smiled as we rattled the rafters arguing over who deserved the last serving.

Aunt Emmie was secretive. Just how she made those unassuming roots a coveted prize is a receipt she took with her to the grave.

Here’s what I know.

Beets A fall or spring root crop
Before daybreak a fire was started, the wood smoke wafting on down the hollow. An old battered washtub filled with water was lifted onto the flames with an unceremonious clank.

Working through the arrow- straight garden rows, Emmie tugged beets from soft sandy soil farmed by generations of our family.

Once rinsed and trimmed, the beets were readied for baptism. “Pickling juice” was prepared; sugar, vinegar, and spices, a secret anointing that made the orbs simultaneously sweet and sour. Packed and sealed in jars, the precious converts were toted outside to simmer in the washtub all day.

From time to time, Em would inspect the progress. If the water was boiling proper, gentle clinks could be heard as jars moved against ancient washtub walls. If the fire burned low, more fuel was added.


Just before sunset, jars were removed from the boiling cauldron and allowed to cool out back on the summer porch. I cannot imagine Aunt Em putting jars in the root cellar, but she always did. Sunday dinner rituals commenced with the youngest child being sent under the house, in amongst the cobwebs and spiders, to retrieve two pints of sweet pickled beets from Aunt Em’s treasury.

Carefully, the child would slither back to daylight, proudly clasping a shimmering jar in each hand.

Maybe it sounds silly, but we would actually gather around Aunt Em as she dumped the magical pickled sweet beets into a timeworn chipped and cracked serving bowl. It was one of those rare moments when the family observed silence.

Cool from cellar storage, the beets were firm, yet had a gentle “give” as one bit through the scarlet flesh. Though sweet and tart, the earthy flavor was underscored, not masked. Mustiness, similar to that of a red wine, lingered at the finish.

Each year, I tinker with my sweet pickled beet recipe; each year I come closer to achieving the perfection found in Aunt Emmie’s lovingly filled mason jars. Perhaps it’s chasing that cherished memory that makes Pickled Sweet Beets my favorite dish. I will master the flavor, and seal it up in the same jars Aunt Em used. When I do, I will serve them in an old cracked plate and you will not be disappointed.

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About Joyce Pinson

Joyce Friend Pinson is a regional farm-to-table columnist for the Appalachian-News Express. She is a local television host. Her column show and blog, Friends Drift Inn, explores food, gardening, and real life farm-to-table stories from the perspective of a baby boomer in Appalachia. Joyce has a background in agriculture, media, and small business. Joyce is an heirloom gardening addict and home canner. She has a penchant for big hats, pointy toed shoes, and bourbon. Along with her husband Charlie, Joyce really does live in a barn where they ballroom dance. And laugh. And cook. And giggle.