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.