Jewish World Review April 10, 2006 / 12 Nissan, 5766
By Bill Daley
JewishWorldReview.com | (KRT)
OLLINSVILLE, Ill. Within sight of the St. Louis skyline and its storied Gateway Arch, growers pull an estimated 60 percent of the world's horseradish crop from the fertile Mississippi River flatlands known as the American Bottoms.
You'd likely never know it, unless you chanced to arrive here in time for the annual International Horseradish Festival.
"Some people come from all over for horseradish and then there are some people in Collinsville who have no clue," said Dennis Diekemper, manager of J.R. Kelly Co. The Collinsville company bills itself as the largest horseradish shipper in the United States.
State agriculture officials tried to find out the exact scope of Illinois' horseradish industry as part of a specialty-crop survey conducted last year. They thought the state led the nation in horseradish production but lacked the statistics to know for sure. Guess what? They still don't know.
"We produce a lot (of horseradish) but the acreage in comparison to other commodities isn't large," explained Chris Herbert, communications manager with the state Department of Agriculture. "Horseradish doesn't pop up on the survey radar screen, and we don't know why."
Horseradish seems to suffer from a low profile, even though the Horseradish Information Council, an industry group, reports that some 24 million pounds of horseradish roots are ground and processed annually in the United States. The root, officially known as Armoracia rusticana, isn't the belle of the produce aisle - but then few members of the Brassicaceae, or cabbage family, are. And it's certainly nothing to look at, resembling a pumped-up parsnip on steroids at best or a tangle of ginseng-like roots at worst. Yet horseradish can serve as an all-important "secret ingredient" in cooking.
Consider what cocktail sauce would be without it: plain old ketchup. For millions of Jewish families, horseradish is an integral part of the Seder table. And Sushi wouldn't be sushi without the little mound of ground horseradish dyed green to masquerade as pricey wasabi paste.
You would think Illinois' civic heart would be beating proudly for horseradish, but the root seems to be growing just below the radar of popular awareness.
Even here, in the self-proclaimed horseradish capital of the world, the root generates relatively little fuss outside of the festival. Tell locals you've come for the horseradish harvest and expect a bemused look normally reserved for a slightly dotty aunt. Perhaps it's safer to confess dropping by to view the town's other attractions, the world's largest ketchup bottle or the ancient Cahokia Mounds state historic site.
"People who love horseradish know horseradish very well. If you don't love horseradish you don't know anything about it," said Dawn Cordle, chairwoman of the horseradish festival and assistant to Collinsville's town manager. "It's not a love-hate relationship. It's a love-ignorance situation."
Cordle says the festival draws about 20,000 people from 15 states and a number of foreign countries. Yet, while she can receive an enthusiastic e-mail from a German mayor about horseradish, the local radio station once, wrongly, claimed nearby Belleville, Ill., was the horse-radish capital.
"Here's someone in Germany who has a love of horseradish and the guy on the radio eight miles down the road has no clue," she said, chuckling.
Horseradish just seems to be hiding in plain sight. No one knows that better than Carl Weissert, a self-described "urban farmer," who has toiled for decades on a patchwork of fields he owns or rents in neighboring East St. Louis.
The horseradish festival has raised the industry profile some, he said, but many locals still have only a "vague awareness" of what horseradish is about.
"It's frustrating sometimes," Weissert said. "I've learned to know that's the way it is."
Yet, the grower understands why.
Horseradish is "kind of a non-showy thing," he said. It's not "pretty and shiny like a fresh tomato or some green thing."
Development now encroaches on the acres the 63-year-old widower cultivates for his Green Acres Farm. The Southwestern Correctional Center, a minimum-security prison, is his neighbor on one side. Out back is Interstate Highway 64 and, just beyond it, the peaked roof and pink neon palm trees of Hollywood, an adult club recently planted in the middle of what was Weissert's biggest rented horseradish field.
"Everyone is a star at Hollywood," a club billboard proclaims. But the true star here, at least in Weissert's eyes, is that horseradish growing right up to the club's garish blue-and-white mesh fence.
Horseradish originated in eastern Europe and the name derives from the German meerrettich, or "sea radish." The root was first planted in the Collinsville area in the 19th century by German immigrants. Horseradish thrived in the mineral-rich soils left behind in the flood plain by the Mississippi River.
"The ground was friendly and they grew all kinds of vegetables," Weissert said.
Weissert's family has farmed the land for nearly a century and this particular farmstead for nearly 60 years. Weissert's 90-year-old mother still lives in the small house where he grew up.
Yet the old ways are endangered.
Labor is getting harder to find; growers rely on teams of migrant workers to do the harvesting. No agricultural equipment is made specifically for horseradish harvesting, said Weissert, so growers are forced to adapt machinery designed for other uses. His battered red harvester was originally built to pull potatoes.
Then there's the development. The strip club planted in Weissert's field is perhaps the most obvious sign that the St. Louis area is growing more crowded. Increasingly confronted with new growth_from subdivisions, shopping centers, motels and even strip clubs_horseradish growers are slowly retreating, Diekemper said, moving their operations to more open land 100 to 200 miles farther south.
Changes to the horseradish industry continue relatively unnoticed in the community. Diekemper said the business doesn't have much impact on local residents and the growers remain pretty tight-lipped about what they do.
At Weissert's farm, the age-old cycle of horseradish growing continues despite the urban_and urbane_distractions sprouting up around it. Horseradish harvesting begins in the fall, stops for the winter and resumes in the spring. Growers often are planting this year's crop as they harvest last year's.
Pieces of root about 1 foot long and about as fat as a finger will be planted in the fields this month. There they'll grow, pushing up leaves while digging down into the soil until late fall, when growers will begin harvesting, usually in late October. Field hands will pull up horseradish until the ground freezes and then they must wait until the thaw, early March this year, to resume the harvesting that can continue through May.
Harvested roots get sent to J.R. Kelly Co. for shipping. Nearly a dozen growers like Weissert use the company, which was founded in St. Louis in 1933. In 1974, J.R. Kelly was purchased by a group of Illinois growers and relocated to Collinsville.
Now, two growers own the business, distributing yearly about 8 million pounds of horseradish.
One of the owners, Craig Keller, maintains his sorting operation at the J.R. Kelly plant. Some two dozen workers, many warding off the early spring chill by wearing hooded sweatshirts emblazoned with images of Mexico's patron saint, Our Lady of Guadalupe, stand on either side of a long multitiered conveyor sorting roots by size. As they work, they snap off root segments to start a new generation of plants.
Packed roots are stored in a refrigerated warehouse chilled to 28 degrees until ready for shipping year-round.
While roots are shipped in 1,200-pound blocks, J.R. Kelly does sell roots in 5, 10 and 50-pound bags. (To order, call 888-344-4392 or visit the company Web site at jrkelly.com.)
For Diekemper, the difference between bottled horseradish and freshly grated root is like "comparing a canned peach to a fresh peach."
For years, visitors to Fischer's Restaurant in Belleville have had a chance to experience the difference. That tiny pot of grated root the waitress drops offhandedly at the table alongside the corned beef and cabbage special is made here from Elmer's secret recipe. Who's Elmer? The menu doesn't say but the locals will tell you: He's the late Elmer Becker, cousin to restaurateur Ken Fischer's mother.
Eating freshly grated horseradish is an experience that builds slowly but emphatically to that signature heat that socks you right between the eyes. Clearly there's vinegar to tame the heat, and a little salt and, maybe, some sugar.
Don't ask Ken Fischer for the recipe. He got it from Becker's widow and won't give it out.
When he's running low on horseradish, Fischer sends an employee, Joyce Crader, over to J.R. Kelly to pick up a 50-pound bag of roots. What happens next in the kitchen is his business; Fischer politely ignores hinted requests for a quick kitchen tour. The horseradish is ground here, he said, prepared and packed into plastic jars for storage in the refrigerator.
"They love it," Fischer said of his customers, who know it is made from scratch, with pride, from fine local horseradish.
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© 2005, Chicago Tribune Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services
© 2005, Chicago Tribune Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services