You don't have to be Jewish to love-hate horseradish.
George Washington grew it.
So did Thomas Jefferson, who identified it in his garden book as "scurvy grass," as its high vitamin-C content was known to ward off scurvy.
Today, the pop generation has even declared that horseradish is "mellow". The hotter, the mellower. Some ex-hipsters are said to favor their new-found "horseradish high" over any condiment on the recreational scene.
Horseradish has obscure roots, though records indicate the plant was cultivated in Greece at least 3,000 years ago. Roman intellectual Pliny the Elder touted it as medicine. It came to be used as a stimulant, a diuretic, an antiseptic, an aphrodisiac.
Old herbalists grated the root, mixed in mustard seed, added boiling water and coaxed the potion down the gullet of anyone who complained of dropsy. A poultice of the scraped root was often applied to aching joints, after the fashion of a mustard plaster, to relieve the pain of arthritis, rheumatism, neuralgia, sciatica, gout and swellings of the spleen and liver.
Horseradish cured worms, some believed. As a cosmetic, it was used to erase freckles and bring color to peaked skin. As a syrup, it cured coughs and allowed the hoarse to speak again.
By the 16th century, the Germans had acquired a gusto reputation for using it like mustard, mixing it with vinegar and slavering it all over fish and meat. It was believed to spur the appetite and aid digestion. The French tried it, liked it and credited the Germans with the find by dubbing horseradish, Moutarde des Allemands. It grew wild about the continent.
Sketchy records don't indicate how horseradish came to America. But German immigrants found that it thrived in rich, loamy soil of Illinois, just across the Mississipi River from St. Louis, where two-thirds of the country's annual crop of 15 million pounds are raised. The rest is cultivated in Wisconsin, Oregon, California, New Jersey, Delaware and along the eastern shore of Maryland.