Wednesday, 13 February 2013 | 84 comments

To pickle a beet

My father is one of seventeen children. When I first tell people about that side of the family, I see questions forming behind their eyes, rapid calculations and tabulations on fingers. I tend to stave them off with short explanations: My grandparents are Roman Catholic. It’s a Midwestern farm family. Yes, all from one marriage. Nope, no multiple births. How many first cousins? Oh, about sixty. (By this point, I’ve begun to count on my fingers too, trying to remember how many babies have been born in the past year.) And yes, really, the local high school awarded my grandparents a plaque when the last of their kids graduated.Grandma and Grandpa still live on that farm where those seventeen kids grew up, though by now, the surrounding acreage is sold off. We are left with just the house, the garage, enough room for a vegetable garden, and some space to play backyard baseball or burn brush. The entire family descends in the summer for one glorious, chaotic weekend. The house hums, from 5:30 AM when an elite group of early-rising aunts and cousins makes the first pot of coffee to, well, 5:30 AM, when the last poker or euchre-playing holdouts finally get to sleep. The intervening 24 hours are something of a sensory assault.

Gangs of scraggly kids roam around. By the end of day, approximately two of them will have sustained injuries, say, stepping on a nail in a barn, or slicing open their arm jumping down off a rusty old Farm-All. They will be briefly assessed for whether or not they need a tetanus shot. We eat meals in shifts, youngest to oldest, herding 10-and-unders to the table in groups. Someone (probably one of the poker-playing holdouts) naps in a corner, oblivious. An enterprising crew will do something actually useful with their time, installing a railing on the front porch or fixing a burner on the stove. Some of the rest shoot the breeze on the back deck. Little ones squall, are fed, squall again, are changed. The black coffee keeps coming, until late afternoon when some of us switch to beer.

At night, we sleep where we can, outnumbering beds ten to one, and outnumbering linens by only a slightly better ratio. Families with the youngest babies get priority for rooms with beds and doors that shut. This leaves the rest of us to our own devices. Some pitch tents and camp. A group of ten-year-olds has somehow wedged themselves into a cupboard in the laundry room, telling ghost stories until they pass out in a tangle of sugar-induced comatose little bodies. If you stay up too late, there is a distinct possibility that the only space you will find to sleep is a 2-foot-square area of floor where the living room carpet meets the kitchen linoleum, and the only blanket you can find will be a threadbare pillowcase. You will make do. You will wake up in the morning with your niece putting stickers on your face.

This is all normal and good. We are used to it and love it, those of us bound by some combination of blood and marriage and initiation. We’re used to the water that’s so hard it tastes like iron and sulfur and doesn’t really ever wash the conditioner out of your hair (if you’re lucky enough to find a clean towel), used to the floor-sleeping, and used to the orchestration that sitting down to lunch requires.

But it is a bit much.

Which is why, a few months back, when Ben and I went to the farm, I was glad it was just the two of us.

Grandma promptly sends us down to the basement to fetch some milk. I suppose it’s not too unusual have an extra refrigerator, or maybe a chest freezer in your basement. At the farm, though, there is a large furnace room that has not only an extra refrigerator and a 19 cubic foot chest freezer, but also six-foot-high shelving along three walls that are filled with canned goods, dry goods, and everything my grandmother finds at a bargain price: Cereal. Soup. Crackers. Bouillon. Pasta sauce. Cookies. It’s a bit of a marvel and also a little bit crazy, depending on how you look at it.

Ben and I poke around for awhile. A flat of half gallon Ball jars is labeled, “Beets ‘05”. Next to it: “Beets ’06”, “Beets ‘07”, and “Beets ‘08”. (No beets appear to have been canned in ’09.) I giggle over this. We joke about the possibility of a vertical tasting of beet vintages. We take the milk upstairs.

My great aunt Lorraine has arrived. A.Lo, we like to call her, is several years older than Grandma and stands a head below her. She calls Grandma “Shorty”. She plays bingo several times a week, religiously, and drives a Caddie. She deserves her sassy moniker.

A. Lo is setting out a deck of pinochle cards on the kitchen table. She and Grandma play constantly when they’re together, two-handed, but welcome the challenge of another pair. Ben has never played, so they go easy on us the first few hands. They still trounce us. We start another game.

Grandma and A.Lo settle into the easy chit-chat of sisters, sarcastic when they slip up and congratulatory when they take a trick. Soon they’re reminiscing and telling stories, partly for our benefit and, partly, it seems, to nail down details, arguing over who-did-what-when. Some of the stories I’ve heard; some I have not.

They’re mostly Depression-era tales, of hobos hopping off the rails, trailing through the fields, and showing up at my great-grandmother’s door for a meal; and of the mark they found out had been scratched into their door to show other hobos there was food to be found. They’re stories of scarcity, of the secret family code “FHB” used when guests came to dinner: “Family hold back”, a signal to let the guest have all that he wanted and for the family not to take too much.

They progress into more recent stories. A few years ago there was a fire at the house. “Remember, Shorty?” A. Lo says. “I was over here to put up beets when that happened.”

“Speaking of beets,” I have a chance to interject. “There are a lot of beets downstairs, Grandma. Like five years’ worth. Why do you have so many?”

She looks at me, a bit confused by the question. “Well, I expect they needed to be put up,” she says, matter-of-factly. She and Lorraine go back to talking about the fire.

I can’t get to sleep that night (after Grandma and A.Lo have soundly whooped Ben and I in another three games of pinochle). It’s the beets. I am being kept awake by a root vegetable. I tiptoe back to the furnace room and look again at Grandma’s cursive on the jars.

The generation that sees abundance and whose first instinct is not “consume” but instead “plan for later” is all but gone. We might make jams, we might submerge our jars of beans and our fig preserves in hot water baths, but we stand apart from those who marked their days, who remember life events, by when they were putting up this or that vegetable. I have never known scarcity, never had to look out over fields of corn and soy and worry about too much rain or too little rain, never had to stock my larder with anything beyond what I want to have on hand.

I like to think, though, that our sprawling clan has been imbued with a little of the hard-earned grace that comes from being daughters or grandsons of farmers. We’re grounded. We’re resilient. We see the storm clouds coming, but know that there’s nothing to be done but meet them the best we can.

Most of all, we are fiercely grateful for our tenuous place in this big world. We hold onto each other with all we’ve got.

// Grandma turns 80 today. I’ve been thinking about her, and about the family she bore and raised, along with my grandfather, all week. They are extraordinary.

Living legacies are all around us, folks. Let’s listen up.

§ 84 responses to To pickle a beet

  • This was a lovely read on a Wednesday night (or any other night for that matter). I wonder what happened to beets in 09? And if you ever do a vertical tasting, can you please tell us about it?

    • My cousin has already volunteered to set up a blind tasting at our next gathering. I think ‘o7 will prove to be an exceptionally good year ;) Thanks Olga.

  • Lovely storytelling … it sounds like a madhouse. I’m remembering Sunday dinners for 15 – 20, week in and week out.

  • Penelope

    I loved reading this…… have such a wonderful way with words.

  • I so enjoyed reading this, Sarah. Thanks for this tonight.

  • narf7

    Beautifully told and solidly laid out for us all to ingest. A lovely tale of honest survival and I especially loved the beets. Saving for tomorrow whether you needed to or not. We need to take a leaf out of your grandmothers book. We need to collate the knowledge of our grandmothers and great aunts and grandfathers because when they are gone, who will carry on the stories and the canning of the beets? Cheers for sharing your wonderful tumbling alive family :)

  • Beautiful story. I can almost smell that grassy, farm air.

    My grandmother, also from a Midwest family, taught me to make jam and can vegetables, to knit, sew, and to darn. When it rained and we’d pout, she’d say, “It’s good for the farmers.” She still says that at 98. It is a hard-earned grace, for which we are indeed fiercely grateful.

    We still celebrate rain.

  • Ginne

    Value your grandparents. This brought back sooooooo many memories for me! You preserve when you “have” so you can eat when you “have not”. My family is/was the same way. Love this ooooo much!

  • I ate this post up. Every word. And I feel better for reading it. Thank you!

  • I just love reading this stories. Warmes the cockles of my cynical heart.

  • Oh, Sarah–this is SO GOOD (like, teary-eyed good). I admit to being jealous of your huge, madcap family (I am blood-related to exactly five people on the face of this earth). I want to be in that gang of kids, or the aunties in the kitchen (though hopefully not in that last little bit of floorspace by the kitchen linoleum:-).

    I don’t come from farmers, but (in part) from Eastern Europeans who had known deprivation, and western pioneer settlers, who carved homesteads out of the wilderness, and then moved on and did it all over again. And I grew up in the country with a big garden, and spent summers on a remote island with godparents who did have a small farm and pickled beets and even now when I go to visit them in the summer, spending time together means putting something up (though much more gets frozen than canned these days).
    I feel like all of these left me with some big lessons, ones that we as a culture have gotten so far away from.

    Thanks for a lovely post. I am glad you have such very strong roots. xox

  • PS. The plaque from the high school? So classic.

  • Wonderful story. Your grandma sounds like a treasure (and your A.Lo too). And – the photo up top is a beauty. I assume that’s grandma and grandpa? Pre-seventeen kids anyway :)

    • It is them! Isn’t it an amazing picture? It’s also funny to look at it and think about how they had no idea what was coming…. :) Thanks Hannah.

  • this story really made me smile :) Thanks for sharing. This is so far from my family situation so I especially loved hearing about what life is like for a completely different family. I wonder what will become of those beets….

  • I also come from Midwestern farming family. When I was reading about your grandparents’ house, I was picturing my own grandparents’ farmhouse, razed years ago to make room for a new school. This is such a beautiful post, I literally had goosebumps by the end. Thank you for sharing it.

  • I think grandparents have a huge place in families, and when, and if, they reach old age, we begin to see it clearly. My mother´s mother were 12 kids and their stories are a bit like yours. This is a touching post Sarah, and of course so well written! i posted about my grandparents today too, and pancakes. Have a great day!

  • Thank you for sharing this lovely remembrance.

  • This left me breathless with sadness and pleasure and joy. How can I thank you for writing such a glorious post? What we talked about –? This is it my dear young friend. X

  • Beautiful post.

  • Sarah, how beautifully written. You’ve captured the remarkable essence of a big, Catholic farming family of our era (thank you for zeroing in on “grace.”). I come from similarly a huge clan (ours is Lebanese) of some 60 cousins or more, with plenty of farming in our deep history. Thank you for your story, and the reminder to listen up.

  • I LOVED this post. Thank you.

  • thank you, this is wonderful.

  • Sarah

    Thank you for this, and all your other lovely posts. Reading this was like going home for me, but my crazy family is small compared to yours; my mom was only one of thirteen and I only have 36 cousins (and countless second cousins, or first cousins once removed? I never can remember). Sadly both my grandparents are gone and there won’t be any more of grandma’s canned tomatoes or grandpa’s pickles. It was wonderful reading about your family and the memories of mine that it brought to mind. Thank you.

  • I so enjoyed reading this. You’re a wonderful writer!

  • Sarah-
    I mean this quite genuinely: this is the best thing I’ve read all month. Sometimes these blog comment forms can feel silly and quick and just. not. enough. Your writing is quite beautiful and your blog is now something I look forward to fiercely and guard until I have a quiet moment to myself to read (as in now, before coffee and yoga on what will otherwise be a whirlwind busy work/Valentine’s Day). The image of the vertical beets will stay with me … and boy, both your Gram and A.Lo sound like characters. THANK YOU for all that you do for our funny little blog world! ~Megan

  • Chuck

    I could not describe our family better. Beautiful words, as always!

  • Such a great story. And I thought my mom’s family was big, with eight kids! :)

  • Just echoing what others have said… so beautiful both in content and prose.

  • Loved this! I am the second of twelve children……yes, that’s right. It’s certainly a one-of-a-kind experience to grow up with so much family! You write beautifully.

  • This was absolutely a wonderful read, your prose is relateable and you pull me into your stories. Thank you for these thoughts and your story.

  • Thank you for this. When my inbox is overflowing, it’s reassuring to come across something so wonderful and remember why I subscribe to blogs in the first place.

    I’d like to think that we, in a generation which doesn’t have to put up beets, but chooses to anyway, are “fiercely grateful, ” I know I am. To live in a time of abundance, yet have the freedom to listen, and to choose the old ways sometimes, I could hardly ask for more than that.

    Thanks again!

  • Found my way over from Punk Domestics. What a lovely story; makes me think of my grandma too. Had to share it on my blog’s facebook page too.

    PS I love the simplicity of your blog design.

  • Thank you for sharing such a beautiful story.

  • I am brand new here (this post was just shared on my facebook wall by a friend) and am so happy to have found you! This is an absolutely beautiful story. So incredibly beautiful. Thanks you for that.

  • Leah

    Beautifully told Sarah! It makes me appreciate the rusty nails, canning jars and abundance of love at that rusty red farmhouse even more today. See you soon!

  • Girl. Shit. That was one of the finest posts I have read in months. I didn’t want it to end. What a fascinating story and holy moly so many kids! I cannot imagine. Thanks for sharing the story. I love listening to Depression era stories. Especially working at a grocery store where SO much goes to waste and most are buying more than they will consume before it goes bad, I find frugality, in the few and far between, quite charming. Cheers to you, missy.

  • Jen

    Sarah, this was such a beautiful post – I feel like I’m there already, and it’s not even August yet! I feel so blessed to have married into this, our, beautiful family.

  • Your words evoke the farm, the life that your grandparents created….lovely tribute.

    My mother was one of 12, and that raises a lot of questions too :)

  • What a great read. Thank you for this, and for reminding us that we come from generations that worried about the weather and what they could put up for later.

  • Vidya

    Great post! And a good reminder of a way of thinking that is being lost. Yesterday I watched “The Real Dirt on Farmer John”. An elderly farmer commented on houses being built on good farmling land and he started to get choked up at the thought. I felt his pain– I hate it when I see buildings going up on the world’s richest, deepest topsoil here on the Oxnard Plain. Then it occurred to me that fewer and fewer people think about land in that way and I felt terribly sad.

  • Mary

    I just had to pause and tell you what a beautiful piece for writing this is! Lovely. Makes me nostalgic and warm and smiley all at once.

  • And this is why we hope you’ll write a book. Beautiful and evocative. Thanks for taking us with you.

  • You’ve painted such a lovely picture – I feel cozy just imagining it. My grandparents also have a basement with a refrigerator, a freezer, and a pantry full of canned goods and bulk grocery savings. I wrote about it too:

  • meg

    I, too, come from a very large family. Both sets of grandparents come from families with more than ten children, and both sides of my family were Appalachian farming families–tobacco and beef cattle. My grandparents (and great-grandmother on my father’s side–she’s 94) still can green beans, corn, beets, etc. every year. Indefatigable. I can never get very far from their industriousness. They pull me right back in.

    Gorgeous post.

  • Sarah R.

    This piece of writing made me tear up and smile at the same time. The basement full of jar after jar of food that’s been put up, and the chaos of gathering with a large family at the family farm, all reminds me of my own family. Really, there’s no place I’d rather be, and I don’t get to make the trip there nearly enough, but this post was like a little visit.

  • Wow, Sarah! I gobbled this story up. Thank you so much for sharing with us. My mom was one of 11 (it’s no 17, but still) and grew up on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania, and I have similar memories from my childhood. It has been many, many years since we had such a family gathering and reading about yours made me feel rather sad about that. I miss the days of picking vegetables, milking cows, and chasing cats in the barn. Thanks for taking me back.

  • Shilpa

    Your writing is so beautiful, Sarah. After reading your words, I cannot help but think about my grandparents in India. Every time I spend time with them, I linger over tales my grandfather tells me about aunts, uncles, great grandfathers and great grandmothers. Oh so much to learn and feel connected to the past with.

  • Like so many commenters before me, I just loved this post. I’ve always wished to be part of a big, noisy, messy family and I can only imagine how much I’d freak out with joy at your grandmother’s basement! Oh, the canning! :)

  • Kath the Cook

    Just lovely! This post explains the intangible of why its still important, for example, to cook the whole holiday dinner top to bottom with real food. Or just to still cook with real food all the time, becoming a lost art.

    the only thing missing was the recipe for the beets!

  • Kath the Cook

    ps you people need to get busy on the food in the basement at the next gathering

  • What a great, beautiful post this was.

  • Beautifully written. Reminds me a bit of my family when we congregate for a wedding.

  • Paul

    Sarah – all I can say is awesome. You know how difficult it is to fully explain the Searle ‘cult’s addictive nature–the blissful calm that settles over you once you turn onto Austin St. or pull up to the Midsummer Classic at Searle Yard? Well I think you finally nailed it. Thanks for the beautiful blog and can’t wait to see you in March!

  • Connie

    Beautifully written. Thanks for a wonderful, evocative post.

  • Dennie Malacarne

    Sarah, why didn’t we have this conversation when you visited a few years back? Or am I at that age that we did and I forget?! I reread your blog again today after Jonathan cued me in to make sure I saw it. The first time I read it I sat in awe of your writing style and subject material. The second time I read it I tearfully enjoyed every word which took me back to my own grandma’s house and storage walls in the basement. I could smell the mustiness and feel the coolness going down the stairs and smiled as I thought of searching in the dark for the “lone string” that activated the one light bulb. You captured so much in just a few pages and part of the beauty is that you allowed others to take their own walk down memory lane of that era too.
    What a tribute for your grandma’s birthday. I’m sure she’s “tickled beet” of your work. Come back to DuBois. I promise to make molasses cookies. Dennie

  • What a beautiful post. My father was the oldest of ten, from an Acadian Catholic family from Prince Edward Island. Because he had six kids all spread out I’m the youngest of all the thirty-something first cousins. Sadly I never knew my grandparents. My grandmother died in her 11th childbirth, and my grandfather drowned when I was three. I often wish I had known them and been aboe to learn more about their lives.

  • Simon Arthur

    Thanks for a lovely read. It is a very awesome story. It reminds of when people come over to my parents for christmas. My family aren’t big like yours and I’ve never been to America and I lived on a big sheep station when my real dad was still alive. My mum and eldest brother still own the station.

    You can check out my short story on It is called Colin the Horrorist: Fire and Ice.

  • Such a beautiful story. I think about this often – how much I have, and how I’ve never wanted, or worried, for food or clothes or covers. I want to teach my children balance between the two – I don’t want them to be without, but I don’t want them to take it all for granted, either. I know I have; it’s hard to change one’s thinking.

    I love that last line: ‘Living legacies are all around us, folks. Let’s listen up.’ Yes.

  • This is a beautiful post Sarah. And thank you for the reminder to listen up to the legacy around us. My grandmother is approaching 90 and she is full of incredible stories and experiences and perspective,. It’s easy to take her presence for granted and to forget that we have so much to learn from the generations that came before us. Thank you for sharing this piece.

  • Wow. This is a wonderful piece about your family – happy birthday to your grandma! My own grandma turned 93 last month and I was able to see her in November; we sat and talked for 4 hours straight, a lot about the family and th family stories, many of which I had never heard before. She was one of five kids, and is the only one left now. I find I am hungry to hear about the littlest details – how her mom, from Scotland, made their oatmeal just with milk and salt, which is how I eat it today – and I know our time is precious (she keeps hanging on, amazingly). I feel lucky I still get to have her, and also that I get to know her as an adult rather than as the kid I was for so long. Anyway — thank you for this, and I’m so glad you got to have a little quieter time with them.

  • WoW… Exellent. awesome Big family. This is life beautifull story

  • You have harnessed your story to such uncomplicated and accessible every day images. Thank you for this eloquent, generous, thought-provoking post. :) :)

  • Lovely story! It reminds me of both my grandmother’s pantries. My grandma used to grow beets JUST to can them, even though there was only one or two of us who liked them. She did it because her mother did, and so on.

  • Such grace in your writing! Beautiful, beautiful post. My husband is one of seven children, and his family has a similar tradition, descending upon his crazy Aunt Betty’s farm in RURAL Pennsylvania every summer. It’s been dubbed “Wadestock” after Betty’s companion Wade, who she’s lived with for 50 years, but never got around to marrying. It has expanded over the years to include everyone’s in-laws, neighboring farmers and even a couple of lost kittens that showed up one weekend. We have the same logistical miracles to produce meals, same gangs of random children and pets running by, and the same overwhelming and utterly blessed feeling of family. Thanks for the tribute to your grandmother and the gentle reminder that we often have more than we need.

  • Sarah, you are such a talent and this was no exception. Such a beautiful story and observation.

  • I had tears in my eyes with this story. Especially when it came to the hoboes and FHB. Truly, you are a lucky lady to have grown up in this family. Really beautifully told, too. Happy birthday to your grandma!

  • Beautiful writing, as always. Makes me think of my in-laws: Louisiana, but Depression-era, too. There are two, count them, two deep freezers full of food and cans and cans of things that “needed to be put up.” Thanks to Jill’s family, I have learned to pickle, preserve, can, and make pretty much everything count.

  • Jess G.

    What a beautiful post! Thank you for that! It brought tears to my eyes as well. My dad is one of six children, so I have a similar version of the packed family gathering, but involving less people in a somewhat smaller space… instead of a farm to roam, we had a three bedroom house on a corner lot in a mid-sized upstate New York town. There weren’t quite as many aunts, uncles and cousins, but I know the feeling of having people everywhere, conversations flying in twenty different directions on twice as many topics all at once. When we were kids, the cousins always doubled or tripled up in bed, depending on age and size at the time; while naturally the adults and older kids stayed up late playing rummy. (Does anyone play rummy anymore? I miss it.) My grandmother also grew up in the Depression Era and saved everything, just in case. I remember distinctly that there was always a drawer full of scrap paper to draw on, plenty of pencils to use… if it was an inch long, it was still good for a ten year old to write with. I like to think that I’ve learned from her thrift and though I see my family less and less these days (busy life), I enjoy remembering those gatherings. Thanks for sharing your memories with us and for letting me ramble! Happy Birthday to your Gran! (:

  • I love this, Sarah!!

  • Fantastic read. Loved all the details about your amazing family…recently I just wrote a bit about my own grandmother on my blog, so similar musings were fresh in mind! Cheers to our wise elders…

  • Sarah, I was thinking about this post the other day and went back to read it again. I meant to write and say something much earlier, like when I first read it, but time got away. It left a big impression on me as it did all the others who’ve commented. My grandma lived in rural Illinois and canned beets every year for all the same reasons yours does. The freezers and the shelves….when she died we couldn’t get that old freezer out of the basement because it was too big to fit through the door. I don’t even know how it got there to begin with. Anyways, your post reminded me of her and all the simple sweetness of life. Thank you for sharing this.

  • Anna

    I love this! As an only child, This sounds like my dream (maybe that’s why I chose a husband who was 1 of 7?). My grandmother was one of 18, and my mother tells fond stories of most of them living in a giant apartment building in NYC as kids with troops of them running around all day long.

    Not planning on having 18, but I’m totally going for a little tribe of my own! : )

  • Elle

    Would love to hear your grandmother’s thoughts about what it was like to give birth 17 times. Not that anyone plans on doing that in this era, but what a treasury of childbirthing history that would be.

  • joan

    Wonderful storytelling Sarah. Now I am thinking of so many things at my Grandma and Grandpa’s home. Rusks with cheese, the quarters given to us on the forth of July to spend at the candy stand, never a missed Sunday afternoon visit (I didn’t always want to go but am sure happy that my parents insisted). I could go on and on. Thank you for bringing this into my thoughts.

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