My mother...describing her is like trying to describe the most unexpected, turbulent, and gorgeous summer storm. After a long week of humid, smoldering heat comes the crash and boom of the steamiest rain. The pavement smokes in plumes of condensation and relief; you can almost hear the grass hum in gratitude. Children can play in puddles because there is no fear of lightning, and the porch is our own personal auditorium, as we sit watching all the magic Mother Nature has to provide, every once in a while getting sprayed by a mist so perfect, it's cooling and warming at the same time.
That was my mother.
To know her was to be invited into a fairy tale not yet written. Imagine a naughty Snow White. Her skin was as white as snow, lips as crimson as the most perfect apple, and the rest was whatever she wanted it to be. Not one day was the same when she was around. We lived in a quiet North Shore suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and from the outside, my house looked brown and plain and normal, but just a few steps past the front door was a hand-painted (yes, by my mother) huge, golden sunset on the wall. If I came home from school feeling sad, she would hand me juice, milk, or a drink of some kind, and there was always a surprise waiting for me at the bottom. A maraschino cherry, a chocolate drop, sprinkles, a jolly rancher—whatever it was made me forget that I wasn’t smiling.
One afternoon I was pretending that I was accepted into a world-renowned dance company (I was six years old, for goodness sakes, and had watched The Red Shoes too many times). We were gathering to celebrate my birthday, and I told my mother I needed a cake for this critical, once-in-a-lifetime event. To this day, I do not understand how it happened, but soon thereafter she showed up with a papier-mâché three-layer cake; apparently she did not mess around with pretend. She played along, and I will never forget how proud of her I was, and how relieved that my birthday party with the famous ballerinas would be a success.
As par for the course, this woman could cook. My kitchen, as a very young child, was like the kitchen in the movie Ratatouille. But instead of hundreds of brilliantly talented culinary rats coming together to make a masterpiece, my mother, with her delicate, long, lithe fingers and legs, choreographed her very own mealtime extravaganza.
My father and I were both solitary humans, especially at night after a long day; we liked our routines. My father loved his comfy chair, his Saul Bellow, and his martini. I loved my closed bedroom door, my Annie tape, my teddy bear Alfred, and my rainbow wallpaper. When it was dinner time, we were like Bugs Bunny following the smell of his dreams, searching for his carrot. My dad and I would come downstairs, sit in our assigned seats, and eat whatever in the world this beautiful woman put on our plates.
One night though, I was completely flummoxed. The smell was earthy, like wet mud after that rainstorm. The earth mixed with savory olive oil and garlic, salt and pepper. So down the stairs I bounded.
Red. Fantastic red. Wedges of crimson so lovely and so strange, I did not know whether to gobble it all up or run as fast as I could back to my lair where that old lost dog Sandy was waiting for me to sing, “Dumb dog.... Why are you following me?”
I looked up at my mother’s smile, her lips. My father looked at her smile, her lips, and at me.
The two of us ate roasted beets for the very first time, and as the forkfuls of that rainbow-tipped oddity melted in our mouths, we were once again entranced by the goddess who made our lives an adventure. My favorite memory of this evening is that her ivory skin had tints of pink on the tips of each perfect finger.
I love this recipe. I roast beets whenever I can. I still wonder, though, if I love beets because my mother was there and because she made them or because I really love these strange root vegetables. We lost this creative, lovely creature when I was seven years old. I fight everyday to keep the memories I have crisp and alive. And whenever I make beets, I look at my fingertips and smile.
Jessie Loeb is a postpartum doula and SAPAR parenting educator in Madison, Wisconsin. She can be found at www.jessieloebdoula.com.
Roasted Beets with Rosemary
4 - 5 large beets or 7 - 9 small/medium beets, peeled
3 - 4 T. olive oil
3 t. fresh chopped garlic
2 t. kosher salt
2 t. pepper (or to taste)
1- 2 t. fresh chopped rosemary
Preheat oven to 400 F.
Cut beets into wedge or square shapes
Shake in a bag with olive oil, garlic, salt, pepper, and rosemary.
Spread beets in a Pyrex baking dish or on parchment paper on a large cookie sheet.
Bake for about 20 - 25 minutes, until caramelized, crispy, and browned.
Enjoy. Think of a rainstorm...and maybe a fairytale.