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.