Harvard Beets History
If you like your beets a little bit sugar-sweet and a little bit vinegar-sour, flavored with a hint of cloves and smoothed with a little butter, then this recipe for classic Harvard Beets is for you!
I confess I was nearly 30 by the time I tried my first roasted beet, but I was immediately pleased with its sweet flavor and firm (but not crunchy) texture. After a few years of happily ordering the occasional beet salad for lunch, I was looking to expand my beet-palate, which naturally led me to the most popular beet dish of all (and a New England classic to boot) — Harvard Beets!
Photo/Art by Aimee Seavey
So what’s the history of Harvard Beets? Like a lot of things, we don’t really know for sure. Some say they earned the name for the way their deep red color mimicked the Harvard Crimson football jersey hue. Still others say they originated in a tavern in England named “Harwood” and somewhere along the way the name was mispronounced in America until it became “Harvard.”
Though dishes made with beets cooked in a sauce made from sugar and vinegar had probably existed for years, the addition of the cornstarch (a thickening agent) in the early 20th century is likely what made this dish spike in popularity, and it’s been enjoyed ever since.
Here’s how to make Harvard Beets:
I picked up my beets from the local co-op and they were (unfortunately) already stem-less. If you can, track down beets that still have their stems and root tips.
After roasting, the beets are peeled and sliced before going into the top of a double boiler to simmer in a mixture of vinegar, cornstarch, sugar, and salt. If you don’t have a double boiler set you can just rig two pots together or set a stainless steel bowl over a pot of simmering water.
After their sweet and sour bath, the beets are boosted with plenty of flavor — perfect for those of us that like our roasted veggies, but really love them with a little sauce.
Harvard Beets are a great side dish but also taste great chilled and pair perfectly with a summer salad for supper.