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The Beauty of Beets

Lillian West of Corbett, otherwise known as 'The Pickle Lady,' has been growing and canning the ruby red vegetables since 1957
by: Carole Archer, Lillian West has been canning her beets since 1957.  Here she holds the last jar she has from last year’s beet season.

Lillian West's recipe box, handmade of cherry wood by a friend, is filled with frayed and well-thumbed cards.

She's hunting for her pickled beet recipe. She got it years ago from Lois Jessen, when the two were neighbors on Chase Road in Gresham. Lillian, 75 this week, has been using Lois' recipe for her beets since 1957. After 50 years, people in Corbett call them 'Lillian's Beets.' They call her 'The Pickle Lady.'

'Oh, yeah,' someone said at the community's annual pig roast on Labor Day. 'Lillian West's beets. Aren't they good?'

A single 1-quart jar of beets, canned on 11/11/05 is all that remains of a considerable store that went into the basement last fall. Ruby red in their juice, they are faceted gems, earthy bites of spice and tang.

You either love beets, or you hate them. 'Throw them away,' advises one food editor. 'Roast them,' say others. Or boil them or pickle them.

Lillian and Gerald West build their beets from the ground up. Their garden patch is set in a clearing surrounded by fir trees on 41 acres on the side of Larch Mountain. Growing food up there is a trick. Bears climb up and break their apple trees. A new scarecrow is meant to intimidate an elk with a hankering for produce. Deer are an issue, too. But the Wests don't like fences.

'We used to mix a bit of that fish fertilizer with water and spray it on the leaves of the plants. The animals don't like it. Then they went and deodorized the fish fertilizer,' Gerald says in exasperation.

Lillian prefers Detroit Dark Red beets, planting the seed in about four long rows. This year, because of rain, the garden was planted in early June, about two weeks later than usual.

'I like to see things grow,' she says. She is a member of Corbett's Columbian Garden Club. A lace leaf maple, transplanted from Gresham 21 years ago, fills her front yard. Her flowers spread down the drive and into the woods. The land drops into a creek that, she jokes, is named 'Our Creek.' Not long ago the pair saw a huge cougar on their way home.

They help out with the senior food program at the Grange on Monday and dance Tuesday nights at the senior center in Gresham, but mostly they prefer to stay right there on the mountain. This is a second marriage for the both and a life built to their specifications.

'We want to stay here as long as we can,' she says.

Life on Larch Mountain is a do-it-yourself project. He runs a one-man sawmill, making lumber of his own trees. The leftover wood heats their home. The sawdust mulches Lillian's flower beds.

These days they call it sustainable living, but you get the feeling that the Wests never lived any other way.

This year Lillian is canning two flats of peaches. She's drying plums. She cans her green beans and tomatoes. She makes her applesauce in the microwave and freezes it. Beets are next.

She and Gerald head for the garden, as pretty a piece of tilled ground as you will find. Gerald worked for General Motors in Saginaw, Mich., coming west after retirement to live in the Oregon woods. He did another stint repairing motors for Oregon State Parks, so he can fix almost anything. His rototiller is in good order.

The Wests pump water into a barrel from the spring fed water system that he built. They fill watering cans from the barrel to water their considerable garden by hand, taking care to water only the plants.

'No water between the rows. Then it stays dry there and no weeds grow,' Gerald explains.

In the spring, if they liked them, they'd have had beet greens. But it's the beets Lillian is after. Some she will cook fresh when she wants a 'mess of buttered beets.'

The rest she will pickle. Jars of rubies, ready to give away.

Lillian West's Pickled Beets

Beets: Lillian cooks the equivalent of two 5-quart kettles of beets for a double batch, and doubles the pickling recipe below. Wash the beets, cook until tender. Rinse. The outer skin of the beet will rub off. Beets should be quartered, or if small, can be pickled whole. She sets the beets aside and makes the pickling mixture. The recipe below is for a single batch.

Pickling mixture:

2 cups sugar

1 3/4 cups water

1 teaspoon allspice

2 cups vinegar

1 teaspoon cloves

1 tablespoon cinnamon

Combine in a large kettle and bring to a boil. Add the beets and cook together for 10 minutes. Ladle the beets and juice into sterilized jars. Put on the lids and rings and set jars in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. The lids should seal after the jars are taken out of the boiling water and placed on a towel to cool. If they don't seal, she says, you have to refrigerate and eat those beets within a few weeks. 'And wouldn't that be too bad,' she says.

Beets in Orange Sauce

The late Sister Margaret Boehm of Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist in Bridal Veil added orange to a beet recipe in her cookbook:

2 bunches of baby beets

4 tablespoons margarine

1 tablespoon orange rind

1/2 cup beet juice

2 teaspoons cornstarch

4 tablespoons orange juice

1 teaspoon salt

Wash beets; trim stems, leaving on one inch of stem. Add 1 and 1/2 cups of water. Cover, cook until tender and drain. Save 1/2 cup beet juice. Rub off beet skins under cold water. Cut off beet roots and stems. Using a French cutter, cut beets in halves or slices. Blend together beet juice, cornstarch, salt, orange juice, orange rind and melted margarine. Cook four minutes until sauce is smooth and clear. Add beets and serve hot. Garnish with unpeeled orange sections.

Roasted Beets

Don and Mary Jo Hessel of Corbett say their favorite beet recipe came from Richard Nelson, Oregon cookbook author and teacher:

Rinse off dirt and cut off leaves. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place whole beets, stems intact, on baking sheet in the lower part of your oven. Bake for one hour, or until tender, pierced with a fork, depending on the size of the beets. Remove and cool to the touch. Then peel off the skins, slice the remaining beet, season with salt and butter.