Steven Gold says horseradish got its name because it’s the “galloping root. It used to grow wild.”
Other sources provide different origin stories, but regardless, the vegetable, now grown on farms, still often takes a circuitous route to seder plates around St. Louis: Illinois to New York to your seder in University City.
Just over the Mississippi River in Collinsville is the so-called Horseradish Capital of the World. Local growers provide much of the country’s horseradish, including the kind that is served as a shredded red or white condiment or purchased primarily for its green leaves.
Gold’s Pure Food Products, based in Hempstead, N.Y., has for much of its almost 90-year existence each month purchased two to three trailer loads of horseradish, each one carrying about 40,000 pounds, from farms in Illinois, said Gold, 69, who is in the third generation of the business.
That’s because farmers from Germany and Austria settled in Illinois in the early 20th century and “the banks of the river there were conducive to growing horseradish,” he said. “It was rich dark, soil.”
“The horseradish from Illinois was always more pungent” than in other parts of the country, Gold said.
So Jews can thank fellow members of the tribe in New York and non-Jewish German immigrants in Illinois for the horseradish they eat atop gefilte fish at Passover.
Gold’s grandparents, Hyman and Tillie, got into the business in 1932, when they bailed a cousin out of jail, he said. The cousin had been shredding horseradish on the streets of Brooklyn and gave Gold’s grandparents, who were Polish immigrants, his grinder as repayment.
This was during the Great Depression and money was tight, so “my grandmother started grinding it in the kitchen, selling it on the streets, peddling it,” Gold said with a thick New York accent.
He thinks his grandparents first connected with the Illinois farmers through produce vendors in Brooklyn. They shipped it in 100-pound sacks, at 3 cents per pound.
Gold still has postcards the family received in the 1940s and ’50s from J.R. Kelly — “The Horseradish House in St. Louis” — advertising specials and prices (though Kelly technically grew the horseradish in Illinois).
Like Gold, many of the horseradish farmers in Illinois today are operating family businesses. Lindsey Keller-Janssen is the fifth generation to run Keller Farms, where Gold’s gets much of its horseradish. Her ancestors brought the plants with them on the ship when they emigrated from Austria.
“Part of the reason we’re here is this is where the family settled, but they tend to say that the land here is good near the river bottoms,” said Keller-Janssen, vice president, whose family also has a stake in J.R. Kelly.
Keller and other farms have managed to stay in existence for so long despite the fact that growing horseradish is not without its challenges. It’s a relatively niche crop, so you can’t purchase equipment tailored for it, which makes it more labor intensive, said Jeff Heepke, who is a fifth-generation farmer in Madison County. He and his two brothers have had to modify potato planters, which are designed to dig 6 to 8 inches deep, so that they can uproot horseradish from 12 to 14 inches deep.
He said there was no question that he would follow previous generations into the business.
“There is no boring day at the office,” said Heepke, 39. “There is always something different and interesting going on at the farm.”
The current season, which typically runs from September to April, has been unusually difficult because of “the long, cold, wet winter,” Heepke said.
And that poses a particular challenge for farmers who sell horseradish with green leaves (a green top), which some Jews use as a bitter herb at the seder. In the last month, John Relleke, an Illinois farmer, has sold 1,000 50-pound bags of the green top variety, much of it to East Coast vendors who sell it to Jewish customers.
Relleke described growing horseradish as more labor intensive than other vegetables and there is typically only a short time before Passover when he and his employees can begin harvesting the vegetable with a green top. And that time of year is an important source of revenue.
“The Jewish community is one of our biggest buyers,” said Relleke.
The market for horseradish has expanded, Gold said. He recalls when 90 percent of his customers were Jewish and the month before Passover was the busiest time of year. The connection to the Jewish holiday started because the seder calls for eating the bitter herb to symbolize the bitterness of slavery in Egypt.
In marketing the horseradish, Gold’s often used the slogan, “We do the crying for you.”
Gold jokes that when people asked him to do something socially this time of year and he told them he couldn’t, they thought he was an accountant because tax season and Passover tend to line up.
“We used to work 24 hours into the next day,” he said. “Even with the modern equipment, it wasn’t fast enough to get everything out quick enough. We never worked where we would build up a huge amount of inventory in slow times.
“We always worked to order because we wanted the product to be as fresh as possible” because the longer horseradish sits on a shelf, the less kick it has, Gold said.
Nowadays, people use the condiment on roast beef sandwiches and in cocktail sauce for shrimp.
“New Year’s is a big holiday for horseradish because of entertaining, hors d’oeuvres,” Gold said. “The Super Bowl became a major holiday for horseradish and other condiments, a lot of it because of our promoting it. Deli platters, sandwiches, dips. … St. Patrick’s Day became a horseradish holiday, corned beef and cabbage with horseradish.”
In 2015, Steven and his brother Marc sold the company to LaSalle Capital, a private investment firm.
“We were getting tired,” Steven Gold said. “We weren’t kids anymore, and between the cousins and brothers, everyone was looking at different directions that they wanted to go with the business.”
They retained a stake in the business, and Gold still serves as a consultant.
And the company continues to purchase a majority of its horseradish from Illinois.
Meanwhile, Gold continues to promote different uses for the condiment. “If you’re having matzah ball soup at the seder, put a teaspoon of the white horseradish in the bowl right before you eat it,” he suggested.