To understand the horseradish first you must know about gefilte fish.
Gefilte fish is an ethnic food originating with Jewish folk of eastern European origin. The primary ingredient is fresh water fish -- pike, whitefish, carp -- finely chopped by hand and formed into baseball sized portions, slowly cooked in a broth made from the heads, bones and skin of the ingredient fish. In this country it is primarily served as a first course at spring and autumn holidays -- Passover, the New Year.
The preparation is long and labor intensive, hours of chopping by hand. Though in more recent decades it became available already prepared and sold in jars, some holdouts, like my mom, insisted on continuing to prepare it at home, certain and correctly so, that the store-bought product was quite inferior. Her gefilte fish, a source of justifiable pride and served at holiday dinners with extended family, was legendary and always elicited warm praise from the assembled.
Gefilte fish is served with grated horseradish. While commercial products have long been acceptable my mom insisted on serving horseradish that she had grated by hand, choosing a large and firm horseradish for that purpose at the grocery store.
There we were, my wife and I, in our first home in a country setting. The perfect opportunity, I thought, to surprise my mom with a fresh homegrown horseradish in time for the autumn holiday. How proud she would be, I was certain, to serve her renowned gefilte fish with horseradish grown by her precious son.
I had learned through sweat-filled experience that the location of our first vegetable garden was far too rocky for a root vegetable. I chose a small and special spot behind our house that received full sun and offered a rich soil. I dug a deep hole -- at least eighteen inches -- loosened the soil, added some compost and fertilizer, and planted a horseradish root I was lucky to find at a rural garden center.
Soon enough some green shoots appeared and grew into leaves. I checked on my horseradish plant almost daily, carefully weeding around it, watering by hand when the soil got dry, adding liquid fertilizer to both the ground and leaves. I handpicked off of the plant the few bugs that appeared even if they appeared to be transient visitors on their way elsewhere. As summer progressed, the green plant grew larger and larger, full and lush with large leaves, vibrant in color. I imagined the large horseradish root that lay underneath this prolific exhibition of plant vigor. I could hardly wait until harvest time.
In autumn my folks drove up for a visit. It was a beautiful late September day, the trees beginning their multicolored seasonal display, the sky a bright blue, the air crisp but not cold. I took my mom out into the back yard, spading fork in hand, explained I had a surprise for her, and led her to my plant, sitting majestically alone in the rear of the yard.
"I grew you a horseradish!"
She was excited and exclaimed how large the plant was. I began to carefully dig up my offering, holding the leaves aside, providing a wide berth for the anticipated enormous root. And I dug. And dug. And finally pulled up the root of the prolifically leafed plant I had nurtured all summer long.
A skinny little root of no more than a couple of inches length.
Behind me I heard a chuckle. Then a stifled laugh. Then hysterical laughter, the sort that overwhelms the laughing party to the point of breathlessness. My mom, who in stereotypical Jewish mother fashion had always praised me and celebrated my most modest accomplishments as if I were a Nobel Laurette had completely lost all control and, for the first time in my life, laughed at my efforts.
I could not help but join in the laughter.
"So, maybe next year you'll grow a bigger one."
A few years later, having moved to a small city with a large yard, I planted a horseradish, nurtured it for a while, and then left it alone. I waited a couple of years while the plant sent out underground shoots and spread over a larger and larger area of my garden. Finally I mustered the courage to one day quietly and alone dig up what thankfully were some large horseradish roots which a few days later I presented to my mom. The horseradish curse was lifted.
When she served her gefilte fish that autumn she proudly told all that I had grown the horseradish. We smiled at each other, recalling that first try but saying nothing.
Originally appeared in GreenPrints.