By the time you get this far south, everybody’s a Cardinals fan and loves to talk about Whitey Herzog. They also love to talk about horseradish. They make Bloody Marys with horseradish. They put it in carrot cake. They put it in hot sauce for crab Rangoon. This is Collinsville, Illinois, self-proclaimed horseradish capital of the world, the town responsible for approximately two-thirds of the country’s entire horseradish supply.
On a bright spring Saturday in May, a few thousand horseradish enthusiasts gathered for Collinsville’s third annual International Horseradish Festival. “I’m very proud to be here at this event,” Congressman Jerry Costello proclaimed from the small stage in the town’s park.
Collinsville looks much like any midwestern suburb and could easily have been Buffalo Grove, except there are more Hardee’s per square inch, and the bathroom at the Dairy Queen was clean. “A lot of towns in the United States have their flower festivals and Octoberfests,” said Pat O’Neil, one of this festival’s organizers. “This is the only horseradish festival.”
Teenage mothers with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles buttons and Simpsons T-shirts wheeled their children across a little wooden bridge and up a grassy hill toward the main tents. Several children, all prepared for the Little Miss Horseradish pageant, were dressed up like horseradish roots, their faces protruding from clumps of tangled, dangling roots. People were selling “Horseradish Now!” T-shirts, and buttons and bumper stickers that announced “Horseradish: A Root Awakening.”
One small boy who was dressed in a Roy Rogers cowboy shirt said, “I want some horseradish, Mommy,” and tugged on the seat of her Wranglers. His mother snapped “Don’t y’all touch me there,” and swatted his head with a rolled-up newspaper.
Outside the horseradish exhibit tents were tables where you could buy knickknacks for your child or home: plaster ducks for the front lawn, rickety wooden shelving, crocheted pillow covers and welcome mats, and foot-high skinny rats dressed up like Betsy Ross, with aprons and bonnets.
Behind the pagoda in the center of the park, a circa-1958 hi-fi blared out tinny bluegrass music, while an octogenarian square-dance caller bellowed into his megaphone, “Swing her north and swing her south. Change your partner, ride that horse!” The dancers, about 15 couples, none of them under the age of 75, were dressed as if they belonged in a house of ill repute. At key points in the dance the women would kick up their legs and send their petticoats flying, revealing networks of varicose veins. “If they keep dancing like that, petticoats will never come back in style,” one woman observed.
Back on the main stage someone was singing “All my exes live in Texas” to a canned-music background. Suddenly he was interrupted by a sharp staccato burst of “Ahh! Jesus! Damn!” The singer stopped his song. “Sounds like someone’s just tasted our horseradish,” he cackled.
In a tent by the stage three people were whirring horseradish with a little bit of salt and vinegar in an Osterizer. One little taste of the substance had more vapor action to clear your sinuses than a barrelful of Halls Mentho-Lyptus lozenges. A series of sampling spoons were stuck in a large communal bowl. “This here’s right from Collinsville,” said the woman behind the counter, beaming. “We know how to do it up right.”
“Why do they call it horseradish?” somebody asked.
“I think it’s because the root looks like the hoof of a horse,” the woman said.
“Naw,” someone in a CAT Diesel Power T-shirt said. “It looks like what the horse leaves behind.”
According to the festival’s promoters, the word comes from the German “Merrettich,” or “sea radish,” a reference to the roots’ fondness for river-bottom soil. Horseradish, they say, was used by the Mohegan Indians to treat toothache, and in the Middle Ages as an aphrodisiac.
Two kids with a boom box were making up rap songs about horseradish. “It’s got flavor! It’s got sass! You eat too much, it’ll kick your ass.” But they got stuck trying to find something to rhyme with “horseradish.”
Under the main tent a guy with a beige tam and kelly green golf pants was smacking his lips as he sampled horseradish dishes for the recipe contest. The contestants, middle-aged women with big purses clunking against their hips, watched nervously. Would it be the Polish sausage sauerkraut casserole? The horseradish potatoes? The grilled horseradish mushrooms? Or the chicken with horseradish cream? The festival’s organizers had hoped for a horseradish pizza or a horseradish cola, but no cook was brave enough to give those a shot. The judge declared a draw among the six entries.
A few men in their 70s were standing outside a tent selling prepared horseradish products and discussing the impending horseradish-root toss.
“I haven’t tossed one of those things since–oh my,” said one as he twirled his right arm, loosening it up.
“That long?” asked a second man.
“My my,” the first one said.
“How much them things weigh?” asked a third.
“Three pounds,” said the first.
The second man nodded. “That horseradish will land me back in the hospital one of these days.”
Up onstage a horseradish storyteller, a stout woman with kinky hair who made broad gestures with her hands, told the tale of the farmer and his talking horseradish. “Does everyone know what your teacher means when she says, ‘Stop all that chitchat’? She means you’re talking a lot.” The woman clapped her thumbs against the rest of her fingers in a chitchat gesture as she intoned “Chitchat! Think of that! A talking horseradish? Oh dear! Think of that!” The assembled children chanted along with her.
The storyteller was followed by a young man in a blue blazer who announced into a microphone, “And now we’re going to play the Collinsville Horseradish Festival version of Wheel of Fortune. Who watches that show?” Hands shot into the air. Three contestants were chosen, and Miss Illinois acted as a stand-in for Vanna White. The word puzzles were tacked to a board and pieces of white paper cloaked the letters to the puzzle. But whenever there was a small gust of wind, the solution to the puzzles was revealed to the contestants, which gave the winner of the horseradish festival T-shirt a rather dishonest victory.
Over by the baseball diamond a fat, pimply teenager and his brother were sitting on a bench discussing the horseradish-eating contest that was about to start. Whoever ate the most hot dogs strewn with horseradish in 30 seconds would be declared the winner.
“You gotta eat cold foods,” the younger kid told his brother. “I read this once in Encyclopedia Brown. You eat cold foods like ice cream, and that deadens your tastebuds–so you can eat as much spicy foods as you want.”
His brother was quiet for a moment. “Do you suppose you could die from eating too much horseradish?” he asked.
“I don’t think so,” the kid said. Then he thought about it for a second. “Man, but what a way to go.”