Sunday, October 28, 2012


C.S. Lewis says in his autobiography that he never could write the words "my father" without thinking of Tristram Shandy. He then comments that on consideration he was willing to let the reference stand.  My father didn't have much in common with either Lewis's father or Walter Shandy -- but like them, he had his own ideas and ways of doing things.  His approach to life was concrete and practical.  His idiosyncracies took the form of
projects, to which he was apt to assume that Mother would contribute time and energy as she was able.  She didn't always. She had plenty to do without that.

Dad loved kielbasa with horseradish sauce.  He didn't, mercifully, attempt to make kielbasa, at least not in my lifetime.  Mother reports that he had attempted sausage at some point in the far distant past, from a home-grown pig.  Dad liked to start his processes at the beginning.

On an agricultural impulse he undertook to grow horseradish in the hope that someone -- meaning, as usual, Mother -- would reduce it to sauce for use with kielbasa.  You can buy perfectly good horseradish sauce in a jar in the supermarket.  From Dad's perspective, that was beside the point.  (Have I ever mentioned my lifelong insistence on making pumpkin and lemon pies from, respectively, a pumpkin and a lemon or two, ignoring  Mother's lobbying for canned pumpkin and lemon pudding mix?)

Dad appropriated for his crop of, as he said, Hossradish a flower garden that had fallen into desuetude, a strip maybe a foot wide and twenty or so long.  The plants grew and flourished, uttering, like Walt Whitman's Louisiana live oak, joyous dark green leaves, and building thick white carrot- or parsnip-like roots.  Dad never quite got around to harvesting any for Mother's edification, and certainly no one else did.

The neglected horseradish throve happily on its own recognizance for several years, efficiently displacing anything that had previously lived in that garden or thought of moving in.  There was enough there to supply the Jewish population for miles around at Passover or any other occasion when bitter herbs are wanted.

The horseradish flourished below ground as well as above. As it reproduced and expanded, it made more roots with every passing season.  As much as a foot long, they twisted around each other in an inextricable tangle.  I have wondered if it would be possible to use horseradish as an underground fence for a vegetable garden against woodchucks and rabbits and other burrowing creatures.  No; they can burrow a lot deeper than that; but it warms the heart to picture some beast of the rodent type attempting to gnaw through it.

In the fall of 1984 I made up my mind that I would finally dig up some horseradish and try to figure out what to do with it. Tugging on the individual plants didn't impress them a bit; nor could they be dug out with a trowel.  I succeeded, after much labor, with a shovel and a pitchfork.  I'm not sure I didn't bend or break some tool in the process.

I took a cubic foot or so of convoluted roots and associated topsoil to my apartment in Bedford and dropped it all on the deck behind the house.  At my leisure, I attacked the whole clump with a hose; the dirt clung to the interior of the tangle and required a great deal of washing.  The consistency of these things was between that of a hard, woody old turnip and a soft pine tree.  I managed to dissect out enough root to grate and peel, hunted up a
recipe in The Joy of Cooking, and did the best I could.

I commissioned a ceramics-making friend to produce a small white pot with "Horseradish" emblazoned on the side for presentation, full of homemade horseradish sauce, to my father for his birthday.  He seemed pleased with it.  It didn't look like the kind that you buy did actually constitute Hossradish sauce as he understood it.