Culturally symbolic horseradish is a hardy perennial, harvested in the spring and fall
by Joan Nathan
Each year, I venture to my garden the day before Passover, the ancient Jewish holiday celebrating the renewal of the earth, when greens start to appear in the desert, new lambs and goats are born, and the first cut of barley is harvested. When I see the long green leaf of the horseradish plant, I pull up what roots I can to be used in my Passover meal.
Each item on my Seder plate, the centerpiece of the Passover meal, has a symbolic meaning. The horseradish stands for the bitterness that the Jews endured while enslaved in Egypt. “And they made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and in brick, and in all manner of service in the field; in all their service, wherein they made them serve with rigor” (Exodus 1:14). My dinner guests smell, touch, and taste this bitterness by the sting of the young horseradish, served whole or ground into a horseradish sauce for their gefilte fish.
Trish Sirakovsky-Colon, a Vineyard Haven resident, has her own unique relationship to horseradish root. A long-time lover of horseradish sauce for meat dishes, Trish was drawn to the root that she saw at a gardening store and thought she would try growing it. “When I planted it in my vegetable garden, I realized it was a mistake,” she told me. “ It just took over. I have had such a hard time containing mine.” Luckily, she has found a good use for her voluminous roots. Harvesting it in the fall, she grinds it into sauce to give as Christmas presents in small glass jars. “There is only a certain amount of horseradish people can use,” she laughs. Nonetheless, she spreads her enthusiasm for horseradish to many other Vineyard residents, holding a perennial plant swap on Mother’s Day each year.
Horseradish, a member of the wasabi, broccoli, and cabbage family, has been used since antiquity in Europe, although it is not native to the Middle East. Maror, or bitter green herbs, are cited in the book of Exodus, along with the pascal lamb and unleavened bread, as prescribed foods for the Passover spring feast. As Jews began living in northern France and Germany in the first centuries of the Common Era, horseradish joined coriander, nettle, horehound, and romaine lettuce as one of the bitter herbs traditionally used in the Passover Seder.
Specifically, it was probably in Champagne in northern France, near the home of the renowned Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki Rashi, that horseradish root replaced the green bitter herbs of the more southerly climates on the Passover plate. It was from there that it worked its way east to Poland and Russia, traveling with immigrants hundreds of years later to the United States, where it was sold and bottled on the Lower East Side, becoming a piece of Americana.
To this day, horseradish-lovers dig up the roots and peel and grate them outdoors by the kitchen, making sure to protect their eyes from the fumes, which are nearly toxic. “Although I read about horseradish before harvesting it, I didn’t realize how potent it was,” said Trish. “I almost blew my head off when I opened the plastic lid of my food processor. The fumes were so strong.”
With the ever-increasing number of farmers’ markets in America today, more of the root is being grown and sold across the country. And, on the Lower East Side of New York, beet-red or white horseradish is still being produced and sold out of small bottles, a throwback to pushcart days.
Horseradish is easy to make yourself, as long as you are careful. Simply peel and grind the root, mix it with a little water or vinegar and sugar and even some grated beets for sweetness and color.
Just remember, before grating, open a window and put on a pair of tight-fitting swimmer’s goggles to protect yourself from the fumes.