Judithheartsong’s Artsy Essay Contest is hard this time. I may not be able to do it. She wants us to write an essay about something funny that happened on Thanksgiving. And I am racking my brain to think of anything about Thanksgiving that has ever made me laugh. That Janet Jackson thing was the Super Bowl.
Having said that, many years ago, during a Thanksgiving trip to my Grandmother’s house in Delaware, my Uncle Bud challenged one of my brothers to a beet-eating contest. All things considered, there is nothing funny about a beet-eating contest, except for the fact that it’s beets.
In lieu of hors d’oeuvres that anyone might recognize, my grandmother used to serve her signature homemade pickled vegetables instead. I call them her “signature” pickled vegetables, because they always had a slightly off flavor which I was convinced came from something she didn’t wash off her hands.
In the culinary world, if you serve vegetables fresh, you get to call them crudités. But, when you pickle them – and I don’t care who does it -- they just taste cruddy. Nevertheless, on whatever depression glass plate she had chosen to pile high with strange, vinegary comestibles, Grandma had included beets. They weren’t sliced or julienned or served in any way suitable for eating. She just put out the whole beet.
The contest sticks out in my mind because my Uncle Bud, a kindly, sober man, wasn’t given to fits of zaniness, so I don’t know what possessed him to challenge my brother to such a bizarre eating contest. Pies, hot dogs, pizza --those things I can understand. I think of them as food. Beets, not so much.
As I recall, the rules were simple. You had to put a whole beet in your mouth and the first one who finished the entire thing won. Sounds easy enough.
The only problem with this was, as I said earlier, they were going to eat my grandmother’s homemade pickled beets. And, if she was proud of anything, it was her ability to grow vegetables and flowers much larger than nature ever intended, thanks to the big bags of fertilizer she spread generously throughout her garden. So the beets I’m referring to were bigger than average beets, which made them a little too big to fit in your mouth comfortably.
At this point, I think I should mention that, technically speaking, the beet-eating contest didn’t take place on Thanksgiving. It had to be the day before or the day after. That’s because my grandmother wasn’t allowed to make Thanksgiving dinner. My mother saw to that. Grandma was a little too old school for company. Her idea of cooking was to boil everything. Until it was dead. Again.
I actually watched her put a perfectly good five-pound sirloin roast into a big pot, cover it with water and walk away. I remember lifting the lid and thinking, “No, she didn’t do that.” But she did. With chicken and pork too. Luckily for us she didn’t like fish.
If Grandma had been allowed to cook the turkey, she would have purchased a live bird, chopped off its head right out back, most likely while we were all eating lunch, showed us the gizzards, and then boiled the hapless bird until it turned to soup.
Without fail, she would have served the turkey with her famous green Jello mold. You know the one I’m talking about. Well, your mother does. It is one of our country’s iconic Jello molds, a lasting contribution to American cooking from the fifties, along with the green bean casserole.
Simple to make, all you need is a package of lime Jello, cottage cheese and a can of crushed pineapple. Except that my grandmother, who was a frugal woman, wouldn’t add any of the pineapple to the recipe. She thought it was too expensive. Besides she figured no one would notice it was missing. PTUI.
So, back at the table, there was that solitary plate of pickled vegetables with two big purple beets sitting on top of everything like Barney’s testicles.I think they had been passed around to everyone a couple of times. But nobody was having any.
For some reason -- boredom, temporary insanity, who knows -- my Uncle Bud said he could eat one of those beets whole. My brother, who was always ready for any mischief, said he could too. And the gauntlet was thrown.
I was seated across the table from the two of them, so I had a front row seat. Probably not a good thing. As the contest unfolded, I watched Uncle Bud jam one of those behemoth beets into his mouth in one piece and try to eat it. My brother did the same.
In less than a minute, their eyes began to tear up and it was pretty clear this beet thing could get ugly. Even I was feeling a little nauseous just watching them struggle to get traction on those slippery round orbs. Every time they would try to bite down, the beet would slip out of their mouths. Or into the back of their throats.
Somehow Uncle Bud cracked the code and began to get chunks off his and slowly worked his beet down to a manageable size. There was no cheering from the spectators as I recall, just pained expressions of squinty-eyed disgust on the faces of everyone sitting around the table.
People tried to avert their eyes, but even if you turned your head sideways, you felt compelled to turn your eyes back to look at the culinary train wreck taking place.
The two contestants glared at each other like prizefighters in a staredown, watery eyes and all. The question on everyone’s mind was -- how soon and how far would the beets get hurled? It was like sitting in the first five rows at a Gallagher show.
Somehow, by sheer force of will, because there was nothing else that I could see, Uncle Bud and my brother both managed to finish their beets. The relief I recall on their faces after that last swallow reminds me a little of the Fear Factor contestants. Uncle Bud was just a little faster, so he was declared the winner. Not that any ribbons or medals were pinned on him. We all just breathed a sigh of relief that it was finally over and we could get on with the meal.
It wasn't a great moment in Thanksgiving history. As moments go, it was more GAG ME. But in retrospect, the complete stupidity of it never fails to make me smile.
I don’t know about Uncle Bud, but I do know my brother has never had another beet since that fateful day. Personally, I can't look at one without thinking of Barney.
And every Thanksgiving when we've had a quorum of family members gathered, someone will say, “Remember the beet eating contest?”