Harvard Beets – A New England Tradition

Dan grew up outside of Boston in the 1950s and enjoyed many culinary experiences that were not found in my home in the Mid-West. Harvard Beets for example. I’d never even heard of them. Dan hated them as a child, which makes sense. They aren’t exactly a child-friendly vegetable. But now he loves them and has been bugging me to use his mom’s recipe to make them.

I decided to make them for Christmas dinner and they turned out quite tasty. When did Harvard Beets first appear on our tables? As usual the internet is filled with misinformation. And also, as usual I rely on the Food Time Line to get to the real history.

Yes, beets cooked with vinegar, sugar, and spices has been around for hundreds of years. However, Harvard Beets have a very modern ingredient added to them – cornstarch. Cornstarch was invented in the mid-19th century as a thickening agent. The recipe called Harvard Beets did not appear in cook books prior to 1906.

Dan’s mother’s recipe for Harvard Beets is identical to the Fannie Farmer Cook Book recipe (I have it in my 1928 version). Here’s Dan’s mom’s recipe:

  • 12 small beets, (pre-cooked, skinned and sliced thin)

    Cooked, peeled, and ready to slice

  • 1/2 c. sugar
  • 1/2 tbs. cornstarch
  • 1/4 c. water
  • 1/4/c. vinegar
  • 2 tbs butter

Mix sugar and cornstarch. Add vinegar and water and boil for five minutes. Add beets and let stand over low heat for 30 minutes. Just before serving, bring to a boil and add butter.

5 Responses to “Harvard Beets – A New England Tradition”

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  1. Bev says:

    Such an easy recipe to make!

  2. Jeannine says:

    Grew up on these in Central KY in the ’50′s. Looked them up in my grandmother’s 1949 “Good Housekeeping Cookbook” and I notice that she noted to reduce the amount of vinegar a bit. You find them in most family style restaurants in KY but not so much down here. We canned them in pints but I don’t know if our neighbors did. We certainly grew plenty of beets and my grandmother evidently loved them. I’m making them today or tomorrow!

  3. Aunt Lil says:

    Glad you are all trying them. Bringing back the old recipes is so important! Let me know how they turn out.

  4. Michael E Tyler says:

    I grew up eating them., in the 50′s Mom would cook them but I never watched. I have looked before online with no luck. I’ m so happy to find this recipe. I knew it couldn’t be too hard.
    Thank you.

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