Horseradish: What a Jerk
By David Thier
According to German folklore, horseradish can be planted at the corners of potato beds to deter potato bugs. It looks nice that way– the big, broad leaves contrast slightly with the masses of potato leaves, and the whole thing gives the impression that there is a grand feast just waiting below the earth. That’s a lie. Like many time-honored traditions, this is dangerous lunacy.
Horseradish seems easy to grow: it’s resilient, requires very little maintenance and seems like it would be simple to grow enough to last a lifetime. “I could make my own horseradish!” one finds oneself saying about halfway through a summer, when the leaves have grown about two feet tall and started to develop a slight hint of the pungent aroma that one remembers from the white stuff on top of gefilte fish as a child, if one was Jewish as a child or one happened upon gefilte fish as a child, thought it seemed bland, and had a bottle of horseradish handy. The truth of the matter is that yes, horseradish is easy to grow. That doesn’t mean you should do it.
The very properties that make horseradish such a breeze one year are what make it murder the next. They are nearly impossible to kill, and they grow long, spider-like roots up to a few feet away from where they were planted, even the smallest part of which has the potential to grow into a hardy plant the following year.
At this point the stupider reader may think: “Great! Way more horseradish!” Way more horseradish indeed. It begins to appear everywhere, growing up through every plant in a plot and strangling even other hardy brassicas like broccoli and cauliflower. Try to kill it and you’ll likely split the root again, growing the devil root like hydra heads of old.
Recall the practice of planting horseradish in the corners of potato beds? I suspect it was designed by some cabal of German horseradish barons in order to justify Nazism. The act of digging for potatoes is not always pretty, and whether shovels, broadforks or plows are used, tearing the soil apart to look for tubers is among the most effective ways of chopping up the long roots into small pieces and scattering them like a plague. Don’t even think about tilling, that year or any after. Horseradish cluster bomb.
Growing aside, entertain the notion that you have dug out a bit of horseradish from one of your plants and intend to use it for culinary purposes. At this stage it becomes important to remember that the horseradish, like the horse chestnut, is so named to distinguish it from any sort of radish a human being might want to consume. This is not to say I don’t like horseradish – I don’t know what may have given you that impression– but think for a moment of the ways in which one consumes horseradish: a little dab of sauce on a steak or a burger. The aforementioned pickled variety on gefilte fish. Pranks. None of these, except the last one, involve very much horseradish at all. Nobody is eating a hearty horseradish sandwich or a tasty horseradish pudding after a light meal.
Most recipes will only call for prepared horseradish, which requires vinegar, salt and a devil-may-care attitude towards one’s mucus membranes to create. Operative words and phrases in nearly every recipe for prepared horseradish include “well ventilated,” “carefully,” “ten times stronger than,” and “don’t.” My father tells a story wherein he takes a casual whiff of a horseradish sauce he was preparing and loses his sense of smell for two weeks. He tells this story every year. It may have affected his brain as well.
There is a Passover tradition where you try and eat as much as you can in one bite because the more you can force into yourself, the sweeter a year you will have. Horseradish is best conceived of not as a cultivated crop but as a dangerous adversary. It does not grow well because of your efforts – it grows well despite of your efforts. It does not taste good because it contains nutrients – it tastes strong because it contains poisons. It is a challenge to be met, a plant that can be matched but not controlled. To think that you could simply plant it in the corner of a potato bed to control pests is as ridiculous as thinking you could domesticate a tiger to control squirrels.
I’ve also heard that it can be planted in buckets to keep it from spreading. Haven’t tried that.