It is one of the bitter herbs mentioned in the Old Testament. It was loved by the Oracle of Delphi. Euell Gibbons, a famous Grape Nuts spokesperson, and forager, was also a fan. He wrote that “Strangely,” the hot, bitter taste and the pungent smell did not exist in the unbroken root. They were created during the grating through a chemical reaction among constituents in separate cells of the growing plant.
Another interesting fact about horseradish is that 60 to 80 percent are grown in Madison, St. Clair, and Monroe counties. Why? It’s part nature, part cultural, and part…pollution.
Wendi Valenti is the executive director of the Collinsville Chamber of Commerce. “The river ran through the low-lying region eons ago. It left soil rich in what’s known as potash. And horseradish loves it.
The Illinois Farm Bureau published a 2012 article that mentioned potash and “horseradish family” Lindsey Keller, who owns Keller Farms. She says that her grandfather, my grandpa, started farming in this area in 1887. She adds that the sandy soil of Southern Illinois is a great factor. She says, “You need to dig down very deep into the ground to harvest it.” Harvesting is a slow and careful process that is weather dependent. Automation is slowly happening: Keller says that “a lot of times it’s modified potato digging equipment.” “You cannot call up a dealer and say, “Hey, I need to buy a horseradish drill.”
Elizabeth Wahle, University of Illinois Extension extension educator for commercial agricultural, believes that there are many factors at play. “The growers are here because their immigrant ancestors came here,” she said. “But because the river bottom is relatively light, it’s more difficult to dig, so it’s a combination.”
Wahle adds that there is another reason. “Beneficial pollutants” are sulfur compounds that were coming down from the industry before emission regulations were enacted. These sulfurous emissions enabled plants to produce glucosinolates. These are the same “constituents”, Gibbons described. They give horseradish heat when the cell walls are broken. The main source of steel mills was the shuttered steel mills in the 2000s. Wahle says that soil growers are adding sulfur to maintain the levels.
Even though horseradish farmers are declining along with Metro East’s “beneficial pollutants” levels, Collinsville’s J.R. Kelly Company remains the largest horseradish distributor in America. The town will host its 31st Annual International Horseradish Festival on June 1 and 2. This means that the Metro East is still the No. Horseradish is still the No. 1 product.