Talk of the Table | The Horseradish Chronicles

horseradish bitter herb at seder

I slumbered eyes-open through childhood seders, bored out of my mind, wondering if that meant I was the Wicked Son, or in my case, the Wicked Daughter, who counted even less. There were occasional moments when I woke up. Consuming as much charoset as possible was one. Eating matzah slathered with margarine was another, and afikomen hunting was sheer delight. But the stand-out moment of every family seder was the horseradish eating contest between my siblings and me. The goal was simple: To swallow the most horseradish without tearing up or showing any discomfort. Our mother always sighed, “Oh you children,” but it was clear from her lingering smile that she found it amusing to see her offspring shoveling spoonfuls of horseradish into their mouths. (The contest was always followed by an argument, as we could never agree on who won.)

Our kosher-for-Passover horseradish came out of a jar, and in addition to its sacred place on the seder plate, where it stood in for bitter herbs, it accompanied the gefilte fish, which also came out of a jar. (The story goes that our grandmother, a great chef, deliberately did not teach her smart and beautiful only child to cook.) Sometimes, the horseradish was white, grated and blended with white vinegar; sometimes it was a rosy pink, thanks to the addition of beets; but both seemed equally spicy and, unlike baby shampoo, designed to bring tears to the eyes. Horseradish is the hot pepper of Ashkenazi cuisine.

Not that I gave any of this much thought as a child. Only years later, perhaps around the time it first dawned on me that horseradish sauce was made from an actual root and hadn’t been born in a jar, did I begin to ask questions. How could such a delicious complement to gefilte fish and other foods symbolize the bitterness of slavery? And where exactly in the Torah did it specify we should eat horseradish as a bitter herb?

Horseradish is the hot pepper of Ashkenazi cuisine.

The answer, of course, is nowhere. In Exodus 12:8, God commands us to eat lamb roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Which bitter herbs are not specified. Eventually, the Mishnah, the compendium of Jewish law from around 200 C.E., suggests a number of options, including Romaine lettuce, endive, cardoon (artichoke thistle), eryngo (sea holly) and sea sow-thistle.

Although quite mild in taste, lettuce was far and away the most popular bitter herb on the seder plate for generations. The more pungent horseradish became associated with Passover only in Central and Eastern Europe, where the holiday often comes at a time when leafy greens are out of season. When lettuce was not available, it was permissible to substitute horseradish, decreed Rabbi Alexander Suslin HaKohen, one of the greatest Talmud scholars of the 14th century, in his Sefer Ha’Aguddah. Horseradish, a root vegetable from the mustard family along with wasabi, broccoli, cabbage and radish, was already widely cultivated as a popular condiment for meat in several regions of Europe.

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Over time, horseradish, sliced, grated or ground into a sauce, largely replaced lettuce in the Ashkenazi world (but not elsewhere) and became the go-to traditional Passover bitter herb. Jews adopted the Slavic word for horseradish, chrein, which remains the Yiddish word today. Horseradish became so ingrained in the culture, it even spawned its own Yiddish proverb: “Gefilte fish without chrein is punishment enough.” When Ashkenazi Jews began to leave Europe in the 19th century, they took this Passover tradition with them. Those who went to Palestine started growing it there, referring to it by the ancient Hebrew word for lettuce, hazeret, which later became modern Hebrew for horseradish.

Other Ashkenazi Jews brought the horseradish tradition to the United States, where it became a seder standard. Joseph A. Joel, a Civil War soldier stationed with the 23rd Regiment near Fayette, West Virginia, wrote of the 1862 “Feast of Passover” he and 20 “coreligionists” held. They couldn’t find horseradish, but “in lieu we found a weed whose bitterness, I apprehend, exceeded anything our forefathers ‘enjoyed.’” (For charoset, spelled choroutzes, they used a brick, which Joel joked was rather hard to digest but reminded them “for what purpose it was intended.”)

Another story is recorded on a plaque that hangs on the wall of the National Museum of American Jewish Military History in Washington, DC. One military communiqué from 1952 tells of Chaplain Michael D. Geller, who received an SOS via the Military Auxiliary Radio System (MARS) about a week before Passover. The operator could not decipher the emergency high-priority message from an airbase in Puerto Rico, so Geller asked him to spell it out. Letter by letter, the message read: PESACH SEDER SUPPLIES—NO CHRAIN—GEFILTA. Geller patiently resolved the bureaucratic logistical problems and sent off three gallon jars of horseradish. The day before Passover, Geller received another call from the MARS radio operator: ‘Chaplain, it’s another one of those classified and unpronounceable messages.’ Spelled out it was: CHRAIN ARRIVED B’SHOLOM. CHAG SAMEACH AND A KOSHER PESACH.

In the United States, horseradish, which is not difficult to make, was and is prepared by a variety of companies, not just for Passover but year-round. It’s a popular condiment, blended with mayonnaise and other ingredients, and is used beyond the Jewish world, but a number of companies cater specifically to the Jewish market. In addition to the ever-popular Gold’s, there are Kelchner, Tulkoff, Ba-Tampte, Ish and more, some regional, some artisanal, some blended with jalapeno or other ingredients to up their firepower.

But jar people should know that this year will be different from all others. It is the last one for Gold’s. The company recently announced that in March it will shutter its Hempstead, Long Island plant, a few years after being purchased by a private investment firm. Although its unionized staff was laid off, Gold’s says the brand will continue to be manufactured elsewhere.

I am not sure it will be Gold’s, but I am sure I will be carrying on my mother’s horseradish-from-a jar tradition. Grating and grinding roots is intriguing, but a tradition is a tradition, and a chance to remember her. I also like that horseradish in jars keeps three to four months in the refrigerator. Seeing it there reminds me that I can enjoy it any time of the year. Sometimes, I buy gefilte fish and brisket just to have something to spoon the horseradish on.

If you have a horseradish story you would like to share, please send it to editor@momentmag.com

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One thought on “Talk of the Table | The Horseradish Chronicles

  1. Laurie Nada says:

    Nadine — if you like tuna salad, spread it on matzah and top it with the horse radish!

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