The King of Condiments
By Dennis Linden
It certainly is not a radish fed to horses; nor does the root in any way resemble a horse–more like a gnarly parsnip gone wild! So what’s up with such a strange name for this infamously pungent root? The best guess of etymologists is to blame the root of its name, pardon the pun, on a probable mispronunciation by an unnamed Englishman of what the Germans called a meerettich, which meant “stronger radish.” Thinking that the “meer” syllable was pronounced as “mare”, our language-challenged Englishman passed his mistake along. Over time the equine connection was taken way too literally as mare morphed into horse and it stuck! In doing research for this feature I found this same explanation for the derivation of horseradish touted on several web sites…so it must be true! Actually, it’s an unsubstantiated story based on the science of logical guesswork as practiced by inventive word mythologists; in truth, no one has a clue as why we call this king of condiments a horseradish – we just do.
What is known is that the root as a condiment has been around for thousands of years. During Moses’ time it was included as one of the "five bitter herbs" Jews were told to eat at Passover and is still part of this religious rite. The early Greeks and Romans considered it an aphrodisiac. Of course, both those rather randy cultures seemed to think that just about everything edible would affect the libido! By medieval times horseradish was quite the popular medicinal cure, used to treat headaches (by applying of paste to the forehead), scurvy and tuberculosis. In fact, Horseradish Ale was the Red Bull of the 17th
Century; brewed from horseradish, wormwood and tansy, the ale was a common pick-me-up energy drink offered to weary travelers arriving at an inn for the night.
Horseradish became a commercial crop in this country during the 1840s as German immigrants settled in the Midwest, specifically around the town of Collinsville, Illinois. Collinsville and the surrounding area was carved out by ice age glaciers that created a soil rich in potash, which is a nutrient that horseradish needs to flourish. Today that region still produces sixty percent of the world supply of the root and holds an annual International Horseradish Festival to promote the condiment.
Horseradish is in the same botanical family as mustard and kale. The bite and aroma of the root is almost undetectable until the root is grated. It is when the root cells are crushed that the pungent oil, known as isothiocyanate or mustard oil, is released, causing the unique heat on the palate that is sought by connoisseurs the world over. Interestingly, this same chemical reaction, when taken out of the kitchen and applied to the battlefield, is the foundation for mustard gas! Now that’s taking one’s condiments a little too seriously.
Horseradish is such a consumer favorite that Melissa’s offers it in three forms – peeled
. Home-made Horseradish sauce is very easy to make as it is basically just grated in a food processor, then a little vinegar and salt are added to protect its creamy color and flavor. To that basic recipe many different herbs and spices can be added to enhance the flavor depending on how the sauce is being used. However, the bite of horseradish dissipates rather quickly, so only prepare what will be used at one sitting. Also, compared to store-bought horseradish, be mindful that sauce made fresh from the root is about four times as pungent as commercially processed products.
Horseradish is best served cold, right out of the jar or food processor. The condiment really is not suited for cooking—the cooked root loses its flavor punch completely. In fact, it is so sensitive to heat, that if left at room temperature for too long, the root also loses its flavor.
The combination of mustard and horseradish spread on a lunchtime sandwich is as traditional as ham ‘n eggs are to the breakfast table. For many, roast beef without horseradish would just not be right. Combine horseradish purée with ketchup and lemon juice for a tasty seafood cocktail sauce or with mayonnaise for a tangy salad dressing. Try horseradish blended into heavy cream to create a wonderful sauce for beef. My personal summertime favorite is fresh-picked oysters, just off the barby, slathered with a sauce of horseradish, sour cream and lemon juice, then sprinkled with chives. Horseradish adds a little zip to just about everything!
My research for this feature uncovered two other interesting horseradish factoids, though I could not figure a way to incorporate them. Always serve horseradish in a glass or ceramic container, the root will tarnish silver. And the world record for tossing a horseradish root, according to the Guinness Book, is 80.5 feet. Why there is a record at all is a question worth pondering and probably a good place to end this article!