Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

My Minnesota family’s tradition: Harvesting & preserving horseradish November 5, 2015

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Freshly-processed horseradish from southwestern Minnesota.

Freshly-processed horseradish from southwestern Minnesota.

THE CREAMY SAUCE LINGERS on my tongue. Then, zip, my nostrils burn with the zing of stinging horseradish. My eyes water. And I wonder why I eat this stuff.

I like spicy. I like hot. Not jalapeno with too many seeds hot. But horseradish hot I can handle in small doses. It’s part of my DNA.

STEP ONE: Digging the horseradish, which grows like carrot roots underground.

STEP ONE: Digging the horseradish, which grows like carrots underground.

Just dug horseradish.

Just dug horseradish.

We arrive mid-morning on a cool and windy Saturday to process the horseradish.

We arrive mid-morning on a cool and windy Saturday in late October to process the horseradish.

For years, until his death in 2003, my dad made horseradish. You don’t really make horseradish. Rather you process the roots into a creamy white sauce. Horseradish preserved in vinegar.

STEP TWO: Scrubbing the dirt away with brushes.

STEP TWO: Scrubbing away the dirt.

STEP THREE: The horseradish if placed in laundry bags and washed in the washing machine. Here my brother carries the just-washed horseradish to the work area in his garage.

STEP THREE: The horseradish is placed in laundry bags and washed in the washing machine. Here my brother carries the just-washed horseradish to the work area in his garage.

The roots are now ready to be peeled with a knife and/or potato peeler.

The roots are now ready to be peeled with a knife and/or potato peeler. Every bit of brown must be removed to get a creamy white sauce.

My brother empties the second laundry bag.

My brother empties the second laundry bag.

It’s not an easy task. Creating a horseradish condiment requires a full day of digging, scrubbing, washing, peeling, washing, cutting, shredding, blending, pouring into jars and, finally, planting the peelings for new growth.

STEPS FOUR & FIVE: Family members peel horseradish before it's washed for a second time.

STEPS FOUR & FIVE: Family members peel horseradish before it’s washed for a second time.

STEP SIX: Using knives, we slice the horseradish into chunks.

STEP SIX: Using knives, we slice the horseradish into chunks.

My sister Lanae and her husband, Dale, whom Dad mentored in all things horseradish, pushed for continuing the family horseradish tradition. And so, on a Saturday each autumn, we gather at my middle brother and sister-in-law’s rural southwestern Minnesota acreage to honor our dad with this seasonal rite.

My niece cuts horseradish while her husband refines it in a food processor.

STEP SEVEN: My niece’s husband refines the horseradish in a food processor.

Sometimes the fumes are more than the workers can handle.

Sometimes the potent fumes are more than workers can handle.

STEP EIGHT: Blending horseradish and vinegar.

STEP EIGHT: Blending horseradish and vinegar.

Peelings and conversation fly. Washing machine, food processor and blender whir. Eyes water. Heads turn. And the beer stays in the fridge until the last knife is stashed away. But not always.

An overview of most of the crew.

An overview of most of the crew nearing the end of a long work day.

My nephew adds vinegar (it's by guess, not measurement) to the horseradish before blending.

My nephew adds vinegar (it’s by guess, not measurement) to the horseradish before blending.

STEP NINE: Filling jars.

STEP NINE: Filling jars.

It’s a day that’s as much about horseradish as about family. A coming together. Building memories. Remembering Dad.

STEP TEN, OPTIONAL: Counting the filled jars.

STEP TEN, OPTIONAL: Counting the filled jars.

This year a new supervisor—my sister-in-law’s mother from Iowa—replaced my mom, who is no longer able to watch over the crew and count the jars. Still, Mom asked how many jars we filled. No one counted. We told her 88.

The crew.

The crew.

Life changes. We age. Loved ones die. But we can honor their legacy, their love—for my family via harvesting the horseradish.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling