NR Digital

Country Life

Roots Quest

by Richard Brookhiser

It was not a tough winter in the country, but it was a lingering one, throwing frosts and squalls right through the equinox and beyond. Snow would fall, thin to an icy crust, peel back under the wan sun, then fall again. So it was in a damp flurry, with flakes the size of half dollars, that we went out to harvest horseradish.

The horseradish root overwinters and can be dug up as soon as the ground softens. Its early-spring edibility gives it a role in the celebration of Passover. Some of the ritual items on the seder plate reflect the Hindu-ish elements that lurk in all the monotheisms (don’t smile, philosophers — I need only mention the eternal return). Lamb shanks commemorate Temple sacrifices, hard-boiled eggs are an obvious fertility symbol. Unlike these, the horseradish has a Biblical narrative function, its stinging taste symbolizing the bitterness of exile in Egypt.

This is the drab season. Leafless branches are as bare as bark, there are no flowers except for a few bold and tiny snowdrops. Grass is brown, ponds are sheets of metal, the sky settles down like a lid, if casseroles came in battleship gray. Only last year’s beech leaves, pale and fragile as the pages of old books, brighten the gloom.

We have a fenced vegetable garden — deer and woodchucks must shop elsewhere — but we planted our horseradish outside it. It spares room in the garden beds, and any creature that tried it for a snack would do so only once. We put one clump by a patch of black raspberries, all barbed wire and witch’s hair at this time of year. That was showing no action, but two other clusters, up against the garden fence, were ready to go.

Gardening is exercise because you always have to go back to the house to get the tool you didn’t bring with you the first time. We set out with a shovel and a trowel, but what we needed instead was a long-bladed weeder. That, and our fingers. Under leaves and litter — the snow was sticking only to pine boughs, tree stumps, and stone walls — each horseradish showed a short, dark crown. By summer’s end these will have grown into almost tropical fronds, fit for fanning Cleopatra. Now they were locators — sprout marks the spot.

Horseradish roots look like parsnips, only gnarlier — angry parsnips. They grow in a way that is both stubborn and evasive. If there is a rock, they wrap around it; a wall, they dig under it. Our soil is full of rocks and our garden fence has a hardwood base, so the horseradishes were in heaven. The first I pursued had chosen a strategy of expansion, dividing itself into three prongs at 120-degree intervals. Each went on and on, without getting any narrower. I tugged at them, like a man struggling with a jammed zipper. After about eight inches in every direction, I decided to end the contest by snapping off the tips. Our trophy when I lifted it up looked gangly as a deep-sea creature.

The next horseradish was sturdy and stout and it grew down, down, and down. I dug, I eased, I jostled it side to side. My mind filled with images, all of them inappropriate — first love, the miracle of birth, roto-rooting a drain. “Do you hear Chinese?” my wife asked. Forgive us, O Chinese. We grew up in a time when the proverbial description of a deep hole was that it went “all the way to China,” and when China still conjured up coolies in pigtails, even though Mao had already killed his first 20 million. I got it out finally in two pieces — mitosis, a stock split, secession — and we took our crop inside and, that Sunday, to the city.

Horseradishes are not just for Jews. The strange tastes of earth catch the attention of men everywhere. If you believe you are not just a pilgrim in the universe but a native, then the peculiarities of plants ask to be interpreted, as signals of their usefulness. Shape, color, and taste must be sign language. So the Delphic oracle said of horseradish, “The radish is worth its weight in lead, the beet its weight in silver, the horseradish its weight in gold.” Naturalists from Pliny to Nicholas Culpeper prescribed it for aches and pains. As our taste buds became more sophisticated — cavemen didn’t drink coffee or gin; neither did Caesar — horseradish began to be eaten for its taste alone, like mustard, only meaner, garnishing the roast beef of olde England and the prime rib of old-fashioned American restaurants.

But these horseradishes were reserved for an Orthodox friend in Forest Hills. The question was, how could we get them to her? There was no possibility of her coming into Manhattan to fetch them. Passover was only a week away, she was so busy she could barely leave her kitchen. As Brahmins we would lose caste by crossing the East River. A messenger service would be exorbitant. A neighbor saved the day. She had some bubble wrap and a right-sized box, she printed out a priority-mail label for the Post Office, I took the horseradishes to the Depression-era building four blocks away. Next morning our devout friend e-mailed us a picture of her seder guests. Statism, high tech, and religion — a harmonic convergence.

The next week it snowed for real, three inches of powder — barely enough to shovel, more than enough to pull up earth’s blanket for one more dream. A prosecutor in the Midwest filed charges against Punxsutawney Phil, on the grounds that he “did purposefully, and with prior calculation and design, cause the people to believe that spring would come early . . . which constitutes the offense of misrepresentation of early spring, an unclassified felony.” In the city we buttoned up our coats for one more slog, weather wimps shook their fists at the jet stream.

By the time this is published, there will be spring peepers.

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