Wednesday, April 05, 2006
For the Star-Ledger
Among the traditional foods served at Passover, few are as powerful — both literally and figuratively — as horseradish.
“When it comes time to use it ritually in the Seder service, boy, does it bring tears to people’s eyes — which is what it’s supposed to do,” observed Rabbi Norman Patz of Temple Shalom in Cedar Grove, a Reform congregation. The most pungent cultivated root on earth, horseradish is customarily used for the maror or bitter herbs, ceremony within the Passover Seder, which recalls the bitterness of the Jews’ captivity in Egypt. “I can’t think of anybody that uses anything else,” said Rabbi Patz.
During the Seder, the maror is consumed twice: on its own, and then in the korech, a type of sandwich made with matzo and charoset, a mixture of apples or other sweet fruit, such as dates, nuts, cinnamon and wine. This bittersweet aspect of the meal drives home the message that “in times of freedom there is knowledge of servitude and in times of bondage there is the hope of redemption,” explained Rabbi Patz.

Encountering this assertive root tableside can be an intimidating experience, he allowed. Yet, “there are people who look forward to it, people who have cultivated a taste for sharp food,” he said. “Then there’s a whole other subset of people that love what the horseradish does, because it clears their nasal passages — an unexpected dividend.”
When horseradish is cut, grated or chewed, this member of the mustard family releases isothiocyanate, a volatile oil similar to mustard oil. According to the U.S. Agricultural Research Service, the powerful chemicals in horseradish can protect against listeria, E. coli, staphylococcus aureus, and other bacteria that cause food-borne illness. In the Middle Ages, it was used as a cough expectorant and treatment for food poisoning, scurvy, tuberculosis and colic, according to the Horseradish Information Council in Atlanta, an organization of horseradish processors seeking to increase usage of commercially processed horseradish and related products.
Native to western Asia and eastern Europe, “the root looks like something that may have belonged to a male mastodon and was fossilized for eons before arriving in the vegetable market,” wrote Elizabeth Schneider in “Uncommon Fruits & Vegetables” (Morrow, 1986). From middle Europe, cultivation of this homely food traveled to Scandinavia and England, where it’s considered an essential accompaniment to roast beef. Some believe its English name means “strong root,” but according to the Horseradish Information Council, it may stem from the mispronunciation of the German word meerrettich (“sea radish”) as “mareradish,” with the “mare” evolving over time into “horse.”
German immigrants in Illinois who settled in the American bottoms, a potash-rich section of the Mississippi River basin, sowed the seeds for domestic production of the tangy herb. Commercial horseradish is made by grinding the roots and mixing them with distilled vinegar, spices and other ingredients, such as salt, sugar, cream or vegetable oil, according to each manufacturer’s formula.
“While bottled horseradish is useful stuff, horseradish reveals itself only when it is fresh and raw,” noted James Peterson in “Vegetables” (Morrow, 1998). At Rottkamp Farms in Bridgeton, the horseradish harvest started around mid-March and should last a month, said Thomas Rottkamp. As they pick this year’s crop, workers will remove the smaller pinky-size feelers from the main root and replant them to generate next year’s supply, he added. Timed to produce, under ideal conditions, arm-size horseradish roots for the Passover holiday each year, the crop “takes all year to grow,” he said.
Rottkamp sells five-pound packages of fresh horseradish, still bearing their leafy tops, to brokers who distribute them throughout the country. “A lot of it goes to Miami; it goes to New York. It has gone as far as Colorado, Puerto Rico,” said Rottkamp. Even though the farm’s retail stand doesn’t open until summer, individuals looking for fresh horseradish are welcome. “We’ll sell you a pound; we’ll sell you a trailer load,” he said. The feeler roots that don’t get replanted are sold to Kelchner’s, a horseradish processor in Dublin, Pa. “Feeler roots are hotter than the main root,” said Rottkamp. “But they’re harder to grind. By the time you get done cleaning them, there’s a lot less product.”
At market, horseradish is expected to look “as white as possible,” said Rottkamp, for browning signals old age. “They start looking like tree bark after a year,” he added. But processors don’t mind if horseradish feelers are “funky looking,” he added. “The grinder doesn’t care what they look like.”
About ten of the farm’s 175 acres are devoted to horseradish, not bad for New Jersey, but “very, very small in the horseradish world,” said Rottkamp. The Midwest remains the nation’s leading supplier. Kings SuperMarkets plan to stock horseradish from Missouri in time for Passover this year, said Joe Granata of RLB Distributors in West Caldwell, which supplies fresh produce to Kings. At other times of the year, it’s available to customers on request, he added.
Besides roast beef, poultry, pork and smoked, poached or boiled fish can benefit from a grating of horseradish. Schneider advises using it like black pepper on practically anything “until you find what it best suits.” At Passover and beyond, then, pass the salt; pass the horseradish.