Beet It!

Beet It!

There are many characteristics and features that set apart one person or one culture from another.  During the 20th century, where racism was more prevalent (in America) than today, Italian-Americans formed their own clubs because they were unable to join other social clubs due to their heritage, Black Americans formed the Negro Leagues because they could not play in the white man’s baseball leagues, and Jewish people went to their own recreational area in “upstate” New York because they were not allowed to stay in most hotels and resorts because of their religion.

Beginning in the early 1900s, through its hey-day from the 1940s through the early 1960’s until its ultimate decline in the 1970s, thousands of Jewish vacationers spent their summers in up the Catskill Mountains, also fondly called the Jewish Alps or the Borscht Belt.  Besides their religion which set them apart from mainstream Americans, it was their culture and food that also set them apart.  One of the dishes which brought to America by the Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe was a strange beet-infused soup called borsht (באָרשט).  It was this distinguishing cuisine that leant its name to the area, but it was also a play on words, in mocking reference to the area of (south-eastern and south-central) Unites States known as the Bible Belt (named so by journalist H.L. Mencken in 1924).

Beets and Borscht, History and Origins

Borscht is a soup commonly made in Jewish homes with beetroot (beets) as its primary ingredient.  The name for borscht comes from the Yiddish name for the dish, which was derived from the very similar Ukranian name for the dish, borshch (борщ) The origins of the dish are believed to have come from the Slavic areas in and around Ukraine.  The dish was first made with hogweed, a common and plentiful plant that grew in that area. They would add the hogweed to meat and water and let it ferment, which provides the tart flavor the soup.  The earliest reference to this soup is from a Russian book entitled Domostroy from the 1500s, and the dish spread to other areas of Russia and Northeast Europe, and was mostly eaten by the poor.  As the dish spread to other areas, the ingredients to make the dish began to become as diverse as the cultures that adopted it, but one thing remained constant, all of these sour-tasting soups were generally known as borscht.

The variety of borscht soups includes the original hogweed, but the currently more common beetroot based borsht had become popular in Ukraine, and spread to other countries.  However, the secondary ingredient for their borsht is meat, and depending on the meat used (or meat stock), the taste would differ.  In Kiev, they use lamb, while in some regions of Western Russia, poultry is the meat of choice. Some regions prefer it with sausage.  Borscht can also be served hot or cold.  Cold borscht dishes are usually dairy-based, and this diversity is why it became popular with Jews in those regions.  Observant Jews could use whichever kosher meat was available at the time to cook it up, or because of kosher laws restricting the mixing of meat and dairy, they were able to make and eat the dairy version for non-meat meals.

One cannot make s traditional borscht without beetroot. It is the roots of the beet plant which is used for the dish, and is typically just referred to as “beets” in North America.  The wild beet is believed to have its origins in the area around the Mediterranean Sea in the Prehistoric era.  Being a plant, its pollen spread to other areas of that region.  There is evidence that it was the leaves of the plant (chard) that were first consumed, and not the root.  However, there are a variety of different beets, and some have leaves which are much larger (of various colors), and whose roots are harder and not as round as the ones we are familiar with today. The ancient Greeks as early as the 4th century BCE (such as Aristotle) wrote of eating chard, and later so had the Romans.  It was a few centuries later, in the 7th century AD that beets made it to the China, as have been found in ancient writings. However, it took a while longer until beets made its way to Northern Europe, and was written about in 13th century Germany (the writer called it by its Spanish name, which speculates that it was widely used in Southern Europe by that time).

The beetroots, however, were not discarded.  There is evidence that the roots may have been used as medicine by ancient civilizations,, and are believed to have grown in the Gardens of Babylon.   Beets, specifically, were not mentioned in the Torah, but may have been generally referred to in general when it mentions leafy plants or tubular vegetables, but people of that time most people in that region probably consumed beets as part of their daily diet.

The first mention of cultivating beets is written on a cuneiform tablet found in Babylon dating from the 8th century BCE. The roots of the beets eventually made their way into the culinary world via the Roman Empire, with usage in dishes probably beginning around the 2nd or 3rd century.  The use of the roots in food eventually made its way to Northern Europe, but the earliest known recording of its use in a recipe dates from the 14th century. The variety of beet which is most common today with the big red bulbs for roots was first mentioned in Germany in the mid-1500’s, although it was still probably not as common at that time. As it became more plentiful, this beet variety took on the name “Roman beet” and became very popular in England and France. The beet plant made its way over to North America by the 1800s, but it was only the red beet variety that was grown.

Beets have a number of uses besides being the main ingredient for a tasty dish.  When a German chemist named Andreas Marggraf discovered a way of extracting sucrose from beets, he his upon a million-dollar discovery.  In fact, 20 percent of the sugar used today comes from sugar beets.  Beets have been used for hundreds of years in medicine for their healing properties.  Pliny the Elder, as far back as the 1st century wrote about the use of beets for healing, and used during the middle ages as treatment for stomach and blood ailments. Beets contain a chemical called betalains, which is a natural antioxidant, and there has been some research showing that beet juice may be helpful in lowering blood pressure.

The Borscht Belt

It was the unique European dish named borscht that was given homage when referring to the area of the Catskill Mountains where Jewish families spent their summers during the middle part of the 20th century. Specifically, it was the areas of Ulster, Orange, and Sullivan (sometimes referred to as Solomon) counties of New York that were given the name the Borscht Belt, and provided an outdoor paradise for those that spent the colder months confined to the concrete jungle of New York City.

The summer migration began around the 1920s, when Jews were not allowed entry or membership in local summer venues (such as hotels and resorts) due solely to their religion.  Jewish farmers that migrated to the area began to take in borders, which eventually evolved into small inns and bungalow colonies. By the 1940s, the area, also known as the Jewish Alps, became a popular spot for the rising number of middle working class families in New York City that wanted a place to enjoy the sun.  The hey-day of this phenomenon lasted between the mid-1940s through the early 1960s.  During that time many bungalow colonies and hotels (as well as summer camps) sprung up all over the area to accommodate the large summer crowds.

Some of these hotels included The Concord, Grossingers, Kutshers, Neville, Tamarack Lodge, Granit, Shawanga Lodge, the Overlook, and the Pines Resort (to name a few).  The idea of the “all-inclusive” vacations of today was invented by these establishments, which included three sit-down meals a day, snacks, entertainment, and other activities (including pools and sports).  Big names in sports stayed and trained at some of these hotels, not just Jews – Hall of Famer Red Auerbach, Mahammed Ali, Rocky Marciano, and Floyd Patterson, and Wilt Chamberlain worked as a bellhop at Kutshers.

The entertainers to appear at the hotels were top notch, and included such masters as Louis Armstrong, Al Jolson, Carole King, Duke Ellington, Barry Manilow, Bette Midler, Neil Sedaka, Simon and Garfunkel, Mel Torme, Barbara Streisand, Sammy Davis Jr., Bob Dylan, and Dean Martin to just name a few.  [Fast fact: Although Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey cannot be added to this list (since Dirty Dancing was filmed in North Carolina and Virginia), Jerry Orbach, who co-starred in the movie did appear in the Catskills during the earlier days of his career.] The comedians to appear are who’s who of comedy of the 20th century, and includes such names as Woody Allen, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Joey Bishop, Mel Blanc, Mel Brooks, Goerge Burns, Red Buttons, Sid Ceasar, Billy Crystal, Rodney Dangerfield, Phyllis Diller, Buddy Hacket, Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis, Marx Brothers, Jackie Mason, Carl Reiner, Don Rickles, Joan Rivers, Soupy Sales, Jerry Stiller, The Three Stooges, Jonathan Winters, Henny Youngman, and many, many more.

By the mid-1960s the decline of the Borscht Belt started to set in.  Hotels and resorts closer to NYC began opening their doors to Jews, so a need for such a haven was no longer needed.  Hotels and bungalow colonies began to close one by one.  Some tried to hold on for a while longer, but I would cite the closing of Grossingers in 1986 as the official point where the Borscht Belt was no more. A few hotels did try to stay open in the area and cater to a more diverse crowd, fueled by the hopes of legalized gambling coming to the area; however, that never came to fruition, and the last holdouts began to fold (the Nevele closed in 2009, and Kutchers (which was originally opened in 1907) was sold and demolished to build a Nature Cure Lifestyle Management Center).  Interestingly, although it was the reform to conservative Jews that enjoyed the hotels and bungalow colonies of the Borsht Belt of the past, it has been the orthodox Jews that have bought up many of these properties for their own vacation and learning camps and retreats.

The Recipe

Not everyone likes beets, so here’s a quick recipe that will not take much time, so you will not feel that you put much effort into it, if you do not like the outcome. It will take no more than 20 minutes to prep and cook . . . . Roasted beets with feta cheese.

Ingredients (serves 4)

4 Beets (peeled; cut into ¾” cubes)

2 Tbl Olive Oil

1/8 cup Feta Cheese (crumbled)

Salt (to taste)

Directions

1: Preheat oven to 425

2: Toss beets in the olive oil & salt

3: Place beets on a baking sheet; place into oven for 12 minutes

4: Take out of oven and sprinkle with feta

5: Place into oven for 5-7 minutes (beets are tender and feta is not burnt)

Sources

Books

  • “Cooking with the Bible: Biblical Food, Feasts, and Lore,” Anthony F. Chiffolo and Ryner W. Hesse Jr. (Greenwood: 2006),  pp 227-228.
  • “The Evil Eye in the Bible and in Rabbinic Literature,” Rivka Ulmer (Ktav Publishing 1994)
  • “Natualis Historiae,” C. Plinii Sucundi (79) 20:60

Online Resources

 

 

 

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