AgriCulture: Symbolic Roots

Horseradish emerges in our spring garden Photo by Mark Scherzer
Symbolic Roots
Hi all, Mark here.There is a certain anticipation in the air at Turkana Farms in the run up to next weekend, which conveniently consolidates those two major holidays of rebirth, Easter and Passover. This year, with the arrival of Victoria, we have on premises someone besides me who knows how to construct and execute a Passover Seder, and we will accordingly be reviving a family tradition that died with my mother in 2002 — a full assemblage of the clan and some friends for the ritual meal. I have always particularly loved Passover for both the idea that a meal would tell a story, and for the message of the story: that in each generation a new freedom is born. It’s the perfect holiday for a family of progressives.The resurrection of Christ and the exodus from slavery of the Jews involve very different concepts of rebirth but both holidays liberally incorporate many of the same symbolic elements. Repeatedly over the years I’ve written about the symbolic prominence of the egg, pointing out how these carriers of seeds of new life are perfectly suited to their starring role in Spring holidays centered on rebirth. How convenient that a product of such symbolic potential is produced in such extraordinary abundance at this time of year, when the chickens hit ovulatory overdrive. Not for nothing do we have Easter egg hunts and a symbolic egg sitting on the Seder plate.The concept of rebirth is similarly well conveyed by the first fresh greens of the season. I think for this year’s Seder plate we will use sorrel for the bitter herb that we dip in salt water (in place of my family’s traditional choices, parsley or romaine lettuce from the supermarket), as this marvelous green has been visible above ground for over a week now.Implicit in a focus on rebirth is why it happened – what is the death or deprivation that preceded it? So much of the Easter service, therefore, recounts the pain of the crucifixion. And the joy of deliverance from Egypt recounted at Passover makes no sense without telling of the bitter period of life in slavery that the Hebrews needed to be delivered from.The Seder uses food to symbolize not just rebirth but life in servitude as well. For the latter purpose, there’s charoses, the mix of chopped apples, nuts, honey or sugar and sweet wine that is supposed to evoke the mortar the slaves used in building the pyramids. I get the visual resemblance, but it’s hard to think of charoses as truly standing in for slavery because it’s so sweet. As kids, we would raid the charoses bowl before the Seder even began and gorge on it as a snack.There’s also the aforementioned bitter herbs like sorrel or parsley, but to my mind they are so fresh and bright that it’s hard to think of them as really symbolizing the concept of “bitter” slavery. And there’s the ubiquitous salt water, representing the tears shed by the slaves. In a traditional Ashkenazic Seder, one course of the meal is hard boiled eggs swimming in salt water, a perfect melding of the symbolic poles of the holiday but hard for most guests, who didn’t grow up with it, to eat.But what’s really sharp and truly evokes the idea of harsh bitterness is another element featured prominently in the Seder meal: horseradish root. The pre-dinner ceremony of holding up, explaining, and tasting symbolic foods involves tasting some horseradish on matzoh, first mixed with charoses, then alone. Taking a slice of fresh horseradish without any buffer seemed to me a test of virility, the fire racing through my nose almost a thrilling high. But I more preferred what is called in Yiddish “chrein”, in its white or red variations. The white is just grated horseradish in a slightly sweetened vinegar; the red is dyed with beet juice. Either one could be lavishly slathered on the gefilte fish. Adding chrein transformed the fish from an almost nauseatingly bland food into a delicacy.Apparently chrein has cognate homonyms in all the Slavic languages, parts of Germany and Austria and Northeastern Italy. The word refers not just to the mix we put on gefilte fish but to the root itself. This makes sense. Wikipedia tells us that this is the native territory of the horseradish root, stretching from Eastern Europe to Western Asia, and that’s where Ashkenazi Jews undoubtedly acquired their chrein habit.What was more surprising to me was finding out that horseradish is a member of the brassicaceae family along with cabbage, kale, broccoli and Brussels sprouts. Its leaves can be used as a cabbage substitute in the dish Bubble and Squeak. In the mid 16th century, it was called Red Kole in an English herb directory, before the term horseradish (meaning “coarse radish”) became common at the end of that century. Radishes and wasabi are also members of the Brassicaceae family. Indeed, chances are when you’re eating wasabi in a Japanese restaurant these days you’re actually eating horseradish dyed green.I would tout the nutritional benefits of horseradish – high in vitamin C, moderate in folates and dietary fiber, containing some mustard oil – but the truth is in the typical quantities eaten on days other than Passover, when a one tablespoon portion might suffice, there is negligible nutrient content.Rather, the primary benefit of horseradish comes from its emotional resonance. In our early Spring garden it’s about the first green to emerge, and certainly the first vegetable product we harvest. The sharp burst of fire that shoots through your nose, surrounds your eyes, and suffuses your chest on first bite wakes you from your winter torpor. It most surely evokes the bitterness of slavery, and in doing so makes the appreciation of the what’s newly reborn and delicate all the sweeter. May you enjoy a sweet holiday of rebirth, whichever one you celebrate.
THIS WEEK’S OFFERINGSHORSERADISH ROOT: $5/LBFROM LAST FALL’S GARDEN HARVEST:FROZEN SQUASH (SHREDDED, TROMBONCINO), GREAT FOR FRITTERS, $2/LB.EGGS: Production is now in overdrive. We can handle all your orders. $5/dozMEATS: We keep some on hand, but it helps to order ahead in case we need to retrieve from our stash in the big commercial freezerGEESE: One remaining, about 8.5 lbs. $10/lb.TURKEYS: A few small ones left over and frozen $11/lb .GUINEA FOWL, frozen $7/lb (half the price of the Union Sq. Farmers Market). These are excellent 3 lb. or so birds.ROASTING CHICKENS – Freedom Rangers, $6/lb, range of sizes, mostly in the 4 to 5 lb. rangeLAMB: Ground lamb $7/lb, shoulder roasts at $10/lb, riblets $8/lb, small and larger leg roasts $14/lb, lamb stew $7/lbPORK: Loin pork chops, $12/lb (2 to a pack, btwn 1 and 1.5 lbs), Jowl (roughly 2 to 3 lbs each), $12/lb, 
Spare ribs and country ribs $7/lb 
baby back ribs $8/lb 
fresh ham roasts (2 to 3 lbs), $12/lb 
picnic or Boston butt roasts (roughly 2 lbs) $12/lb 
smoked bacon, $12/lb 
Kielbasa $8/lbDUCKS: Two years ago we did Pekin ducks. The males are not so different in size from the females, and these are nice meaty birds, most between 5 and 7 lbs. Also $7/lb. We have to retrieve these from the big freezer, so please order a week ahead.
FARM PICKUPS:Email us your order at, and let us know when you’d like to pick up your order. It will be put out for you on the side screened porch of the farmhouse (110 Lasher Ave., Germantown) in a bag. You can leave cash or a check in the now famous pineapple on the porch table. Regular pickup times are Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., other days by arrangement. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to call at 518-537-3815 or email.


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