My friend Mat (not to be confused with my friend Mat) and I were at a coffee shop, and while we were in line, I was like, “Ooh! They have red velvet cake. It’s my favorite.” And Mat was like, “Ugh, I hate red velvet. It’s just dyed white cake.”
Mat is an excellent baker, and I know next to nothing about the culinary arts, so no one involved could have anticipated my reaction.
“YOU ARE INCORRECT,” I roared. “THE SIGNATURE COLOR IS ACHIEVED WHEN THE COCOA POWDER THAT GIVES THE CAKE ITS LIGHT CHOCOLATE FLAVOR REACTS WITH VINEGAR, AT WHICH POINT BEET JUICE IS ADDED TO ACCENTUATE THE HUE.”
And Mat was like, “You can’t even boil water without supervision. How do you know this?!” And I was like, “HOW DO YOU NOT KNOW THIS?” And the barista was like, “I’m pretty sure it’s just dyed white cake, dude,” so I was like, “Everyone in the Greater Houston Area is an infidel and dead to me.”
I am maybe a little overprotective of red velvet cake. I blame the beet juice.
I was introduced to the (figurative) magic of beets way back in my early twenties, when I randomly picked up a copy of Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins. Beets — or, more specifically, beet pollen — ties heavily into the plot, and towards the climax, beet pollen is blended with jasmine to create the most alluring perfume in existence, which is used to mask the pungent odor of Pan as He moves invisibly through the world.
I promise it makes sense in context. As Robbins explains:
“A few other flowers may be as sweet, but jasmine is sweet without sentiment, sweet without effeteness, sweet without compromise; it is aggressively sweet, outrageously sweet: ‘I am sweet,’ says the jasmine, ‘and if you don’t like it, you can kiss my sweet ass.'”
“If there is a comparable odor, it is, indeed, the moldly inner sanctum of some fermenting, bursting hive; but beet pollen is honey squared, royal jelly cubed, nectar raised to the nth power; the intensified secretions of the Earth’s apiarian gland, reeking of ancient bridal chambers and intimacies half as old as time.”
Beetroots are rich in a chemical compound called geosmin, which is responsible for their earthy aroma. (Geosmin also causes petrichor: the scent released when rain hits soil after a long dry spell.) Some people are sensitive to geosmin and can’t stand the taste of beets, in the same way that some people have a genetic disposition that makes cilantro taste like soap. But personally, I enjoy beets, and reading about them in Jitterbug Perfume made me appreciate them even more.
Ben and I learned of our mutual love for Tom Robbins early in our relationship — we’ve given each other matching vest pins shaped like beets with little heart monitor symbols on them (heartbeets!) and tiny glass pendants filled with jasmine buds — but outside of that, I don’t think about beets very often. Or at least, I didn’t, right up until the last time I went to Marshalls and found myself absolutely beet-mad.
I don’t remember exactly what I was looking for. I think it was something innocuous, like, I don’t know, a colander. Whatever it was, I knew I had to be careful, because whenever I go into a store like Marshalls, I’m like, “You just need a belt; go find a belt and get out,” and then everything goes black, and I come to hours later to discover that my apartment is now full of whimsical gnomes dressed as witches.
So there I was, determined to only get the one thing I needed, and I figured it was safe, since it was past Halloween, which meant all the gnome witches would be gone. I did have to walk down the aisle of coffee mugs to get to the other kitchen utensils, but I also have literally no space for more coffee mugs, so any ceramic temptations would be easy to resist.
And I almost made it. Almost.
But then an unexpected glint of maroon caught my eye, and I turned my head without thinking, and before I knew what was happening, I was staring in horrified delight at this little number:
I sent this picture to Tempest and Ben, and they were both like, “You are legally obligated to own that hideous thing. We don’t make the rules.” Unable to resist, and absolved by people who manage money better than I do, I snatched it off the shelf and ran to the checkout counter before I could reason myself out of it.
It is not at all a practical mug: The lip curves over just enough to make drinking out of it sans spillage impossible. But the sheer oddness of its indeterminate backstory demanded that I find a suitable place for it, so I filled it with insulating kitty litter and put it on my altar, where, in a move that would make Tom Robbins proud, it became my censer.
And since we’re on the subject, I looked up beets in Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs and found some cool factoids:
If a man and woman eat of the same beet, they will fall in love. Beet juice is used as an ink in love magic, and is also a blood substitute.
So… okay, listen, if you’ve gotten yourself into some dire situation where your only option is blood magic, you need to skip the beet juice and just use real blood — you’ve probably alread hit a point of no return, so you might as well go all in. But otherwise, I find the connection between beets and love magic pretty interesting, especially considering how often red velvet sweetmeats show up around Valentine’s Day. Perhaps it’s the beet juice, and not the red-and-white color palette, that makes them so romantically apropos.
I also sent the picture of the mug to Mike, who at first was like, “That… that is glorious. How did it end up in Marshalls?” But then he did some pointed googling and was all, “Oh. It’s a joke from The Office. Apparently, it’s the name of Dwight’s family’s B&B.”
I was more than a little disappointed to hear this. Finding out it was just a novelty item based on a gag from a TV show took some of the magic away.
“I’ve never seen The Office,” I said.
“Neither have I,” Mike replied. “And it was funny when we thought the mug came from a real place, but now it’s funnier, because we didn’t know the truth. It’s extremely Discordian that we didn’t know. So it’s still a win.”
“Eris is laughing at us,” I said.
“She really is,” Mike confirmed.
And so, a tale that began with a beet ended with the Goddess of Discord, which brought me a level of comfort that begged for repayment in kind. The ass-kissing sweetness of jasmine incense is wafting from the mug and carrying praises to Eris as I write this, and, come the next big Discordian Holyday, there will be ample red velvet for everyone.
Oh! And for your daily dose of denouement: Ben is on his way to Houston, and before he left, I told him that I’d been burning a bunch of incense in the beet mug, just as a heads up, in case the place still had a weird, smoky, floral smell by the time he got here.
And in response, he was like, “Do you really think I’d stop and wonder about a weird smoky floral smell at your place?” And that brought me comfort, too.