Yes, that was me digging my thumbnail into a horseradish root at the supermarket Sunday, covertly bringing the nail to my lips, and tasting the crescent of white root material thereby excavated.
Which supermarket? Several. Trying to find the elusive Root of Extreme Hotness.
Because, frankly, the entire Passover Seder, the Four Questions, the Story of the Exodus from Egypt, the Four Cups, Chad Gad Yad, everything, is shot to hell if the horseradish isn't hot enough. I always make the horseradish, the way I always make the stuffing, but this year my sister-in-law, well, something came over her, and while we were having coffee, she came up from behind and triumphantly shoved an open jar of HER homemade horseradish under my nose. She didn't have to say, "Smell how hot that is!" She didn't have to say, "Are your eyes watering from the incredible firepower of my horseradish or are you just weeping in defeat?" She didn't have to say, "So you can leave the family anytime you want because we really don't NEED you for anything anymore."
But the message was clear.
Okay, last year it was a mild crop of horseradish. Mine was not the throat-closing, eye-watering,howl-to-heaven that good horseradish should be. I'm sorry.
I guess another man would say, "Oh, you made horseradish? That's good. One less responsibility that I don't have to worry about."
I am not that man. There are very few traditions in my life. Me and my buddies do not go to Las Vegas on my birthday to whoop it up. I don't greet the spring in my special fishing spot or return to Paris every two years to sit at cafes. I'm like Arnold Schwarzenegger pushing that grist mill in "Conan the Barbarian." I write stuff and that's about it. So making horseradish, I'm sorry, is my idea of fun. I'm not letting anyone take that away from me.
Plus it's a tribute to my late father-in-law, Irv Goldberg, who taught me how to make horseradish. Maybe that's why my sister-in-law is so hot to grab the responsibility from me. It's a jealousy thing. Though if you read the following, you'll see that, well, as Horace said, "Sometimes even noble Homer nods." I'm planning to grind the stuff Thursday night, and if I have to add battery acid to give it the proper oomph, well, so be it. I'll let you know.
This column from 1999 will explain how I was initiated into the sacred rites.
The principle is easier to grasp if you think of taking a photograph. Your family can be sitting around, laughing, natural, casual as can be. Then you whip out a camera to record the moment and suddenly everybody stiffens up, awkward, smiling tightly, hands hanging limply at their sides.
I don't know how stars or atomic particles mug for the camera, but apparently they do.
Which is my roundabout way of saying that I'm afraid the horseradish won't be as hot this year at our Seder table because I watched it being made.
For a number of years I had been dropping hints that I'd like to be inducted into the secrets of my father-in-law's horseradish, which each Passover is delivered to the Seder table amid gasps of pain and praise. Those hints had been ignored. Perhaps there was a grim implication in the request. Maybe I just wasn't deemed worthy.
Anyway, last week, the message came: "Sunday morning. 10:30. He's making the horseradish." That was all. Nobody asked whether I could make it or not. The opportunity was presented. I wondered whether the odd hour was chosen for the same reason Professor Leopold used to hold his coveted international relations class at 8 a.m. -- to help weed out slackers.
I should introduce my father-in-law, Irv Goldberg, at this point. I don't write about him much, out of pure cowardice on my part. He's a solidly built man in his early 70s who doesn't suffer fools gladly, but tolerates me because I'm married to his daughter and raising two-sevenths of his grandchildren. He drove a tank in World War II, painted a big peace sign on his roof in the 1960s to the horror of his neighbors in Bellwood, and owned a metal tube bending business. I assume he had machines to bend the metal tubes, but I'm not certain.
I arrived five minutes early. The process was just about to begin. Two horseradish roots -- they looked like the top half of a leg bone of a very large man -- were laid out on newspapers on the table outside. Hint One: prepare the horseradish outside, to cut down on weeping.
The horseradish was peeled and chopped into chunks. The chunks were fed into a food processor. (Food processors redeemed the Jewish people in a way not seen since Moses, considering the number of Jewish foods -- horseradish, potato latkes, chopped liver -- that require laborious grating).
But not too much. I was struck by how briefly he ran the processor. I would have pulverized the chunks until they were puree. Hint Two: Don't. Just the barest shredding, then flip the blade around to cut up the shreds. You want texture to the horseradish, not gruel.
Next, wine vinegar, plus salt and water. I can't tell you the proportions. Nothing was measured. Irv said it was 60 percent vinegar to 40 percent water, but I couldn't really tell. The salt was poured directly from the big blue container -- less salt than more, I figure.
The result was not the explosive, grab your throat and die horseradish of years past. We were both a little shocked at this. I think it has to do mostly with the horseradish root itself, the growing conditions and such. But it might have been me. You see, my father-in-law usually washes the horseradish root with steel wool. But this year, in consideration of the presence of a journalist, he went out and bought a vegetable brush. Who can tell how the lack of microscopic steel wool remnants affects the taste? So from tiny atoms to distant stars to the horseradish you ladle on your gefilte fish, the Uncertainty Principle rules: You watch it, you change it.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 25, 1999