Sweltering beneath the blazing sun, David Willaredt, 26, and five farm hands walk gradually across an 8-acre field north of Collinsville, Ill., hoeing weeds between rows of horseradish, a crop that will generate its own heat once it’s crushed to flavor foods from pickles to prime rib.
“We’ve eliminated some of the backbreaking work in the 30 years that I’ve been involved, but some still needs to be done by hand,” says Don Willaredt, 54, David’s father and a third-generation horseradish grower.
Horseradish has deep roots in Collinsville. German immigrants first planted the perennial crop in the fertile lowlands along the Mississippi River in the late 1800s. Today, 15 local farmers, many of whom are descendants of the original planters, produce more than 5,000 tons of the large, tapered white roots each year, making Collinsville (pop. 24,707) the self-proclaimed Horseradish Capital of the World.
Horseradish growers plant about 1,800 acres of the specialty crop each spring in the rich, loamy soil of Madison, Monroe and St. Clair counties and harvest the roots beginning in late October. After they are cleaned and graded for size and quality, the roots are crated and stored in 28-degree freezers until they’re shipped to hundreds of produce companies and food processors across the nation.
Companies such as Gold Pure Food Products in Hempstead, N.Y., Woeber Mustard Manufacturing in Springfield, Ohio, and Tulkoff Food Products in Baltimore, Md., use ground horseradish to add spice and heat to condiments—from barbecue sauce and beet relish to ketchup, mustard and salad dressing.
“When you grind horseradish, you release enzymes,” says Clark Weckmann, 61, manager of Keller Farms, the largest horseradish grower in Collinsville. “That’s where the heat comes from.”
Each June, as spring planting is winding down, horseradish farmers and fans converge at Woodland Park in Collinsville to salute the pungent root during the International Horseradish Festival, founded in 1988 by a group of dedicated horseradish growers.
“We’re proud that most of the horseradish in the world is grown here in the three-county area,” says festival chairman Mike Pamatot, 61, before toasting last year’s opening ceremony with a spoonful of horseradish. “We want to promote the crop because the more people know about it, the more people will eat it.”
During the two-day celebration, horseradish lovers buy, consume and make sport of the revered root. Jars of freshly grated horseradish are sold by the Horseradish Growers of Illinois; food vendors serve horseradish with barbecue, bratwurst, burgers, pot roast and steak sandwiches, and in Bloody Marys; and festivalgoers compete in a root-car derby, root golf, and root sacking and tossing contests.
Last year, Joey Grzywacz, 21, of Collinsville, set a festival record when he hurled a horseradish root 165 feet, 10 inches, and Bill Kappel, 61, of Oakville, Mo., won in the senior men’s division with an underhand toss of 118 feet, 11 inches. The key to horseradish tossing, Kappel says, is “having the best-shaped root and getting a good bounce.”
The festival also features a Little Miss Horseradish pageant, a Bloody Mary-making competition and a horseradish recipe contest, in which the entries consistently clear the sinuses and perk the palate.
“Horseradish adds flavor to a lot of things,” says Doris Keller, 80, whose husband, Bill, helped launch the festival in 1988. “I like it in cocktail sauce.”