Purple Dirt Balls
Early August has always been a conflicted time for me. These hazy dog days of summer come into fruition in the form of ripe tomatoes and sweet corn, two quintessential summer ingredients. Sultry days melt the ice cream faster than you can lick, and swimming pools and watermelons are your best bet for a respite.
But the melancholy drone of the annual cicada by day, and the incessant chiding of the katydid by night, remind that the days are shortening toward autumn (and the next season, not to be named) and the dreaded return to school is looming. My transition from student to teacher didn’t change matters, and when I left teaching and took up farming after marrying a school teacher, summer became even trickier. These days my summer busy season collides head-on with my wife and two school-age daughters’ expectations for a leisurely summer of travel.
It was on one of these trips (a season of my capitulation) that I discovered a place where the entire enterprise of summer is at odds with itself—Saint Petersburg, Russia, of my wife, Tatiana’s, upbringing and still home to that side of our family. At nearly 60° latitude, summer is most favorably measured in daylight hours rather than number of sweltering days. June weather is not uncommonly in the 50s with low clouds and plenty of drizzly rain, even as the city celebrates the white nights of the solstice.
But when summer weather eventually recompenses the city’s inhabitants for winter’s toll, they (along with throngs of tourist) enjoy outdoor meals. This Venice of Russia is built up from an estuary, with its initial design and construction in the early 1700s overseen by Italian architects. Outdoor cafe dining is situated alongside canals and amidst Imperial palaces, bricked plazas, monumental statues, shady forested gardens, onion-domed cathedrals, and at least one notable golden spire.
Here, sweet corn is a rarity and not nearly so sweet, and I can’t recall a tomato that was as rich and bright as an Ohio summer.
My most appreciated summer dish in Russia centers around the beet. Not the chunky leafless storage beets of hot borscht, made with meaty broth and served with black bread, a hot samovar, and an sunless day. Yes, the storage ability of beets is laudable, and has earned them ample space in root cellars across the northern hemisphere, but that doesn’t mean they should be snubbed when the weather gets nice. We eat other storage crops in the summer, giving them seasonally-adjusted endearing names like green onion, baby carrot, breakfast radish, and new potato.
On learning that I grow them, one American friend disclosed to me his pet name for beets: “purple dirt balls.” True, beets can have a distinct earthiness to them, attributed to a compound called geosmin, which the human nose can detect in extremely small concentrations.
But summer beets, plucked from warm rich soil in the midst of sugar production, challenge the sweetest corn. Their flagrant color embarrass the ripest heirloom tomato. And these beets are the basis for my favorite cold summer soup, which in turn is the basis for an adult-onset nostalgia. Cold beet soup was served to me for my first meal on my first trip to Russia by my future mother-in-law.
On my first treks around the historic city of Saint Petersburg—a living museum of art, architecture, and history—my eyes were diverted to cafe tables flaunting generous bowls of the bright pink soup.
But for those who can’t shake the idea of beets as dirt-encrusted winter survival food for northern peasants, consider their origins: The beet’s wild ancestor still lives happily on the shores of the Mediterranean and beets (including the leafy top, known as Swiss chard) have enjoyed inclusion in Mediterranean cuisines for a lot longer than have tomato sauce or corn polenta.
Of course, if you aren’t beholden to Russian culinary norms, adjust as you see fit. For example I routinely include other herbs in addition to or instead of dill. Lemon, anise or Italian basil; chervil; and cilantro are good additions. With my mother-in-law’s approval, we have added cold leftover boiled potatoes. To her expressed disapproval, I have added the Georgian spicy chili pepper-based paste adjika to my soup. (But then, I add that to everything.) Instead of hearty rye bread, a nice crusty baguette is sublime with this soup.
— Story by Steven Corso, Photos by Tatiana Yudovina