Pale Horseradish, Pale Diner

There'll be a hot time in the old town when Collinsville hosts the 13th annual International Horseradish Festival

Anyone who has lived in Chicago can tell you about the long, icy winters by the lake. For some reason, the body compensates for the biting cold and wind (which inhabit the region for roughly nine months of the year) by producing gobs of phlegm throughout the head and lungs. That's where the hot Thai soup comes in.

The hot Thai soup at Chicago's Ruby of Siam is damn hot. The intense peppers therein will ream everything bad out of your system -- and a fair amount of the good, also. After the hot Thai soup, you may feel so cleaned out that you won't be completely sure you're the same person. Identity crises have been known to ensue. (The hallucinations don't help.) When you sip this soup of iniquity, you aren't just having a meal or fighting your cold -- you're entering a sweat lodge and taking a fair degree of pain with your pleasure. The hot Thai soup lets you know you are alive.

The farmers in the area of Collinsville, Ill., supply the world with 60 percent of its horseradish, a food that similarly induces the sensation of snapping life back from the jaws of death. Annually, they celebrate their dominance of the market with the International Horseradish Festival, now in its 13th fiery-hot year.

The festival offers such entertainments as Lavern Oatman performing her tribute to Patsy Cline and the Happy Tapper Cloggers dancing beneath a giant root-shaped balloon. Crafts, souvenirs and potted horseradish plants will be for sale.

Fairgoers may dine on hot dogs, hamburgers, brats and other foods daubed with freshly ground horseradish provided by the local farmers. Don't forget the horseradish ketchup, horseradish mustard, horseradish barbecue sauce, horseradish relish and "nippy sauce," which retired horseradish farmer John Keller says tastes like Miracle Whip with horseradish and is real good. Beer, wine, soda and other drinks will be available to drown the fire.

The annual horseradish recipe and Bloody Mary contests draw quite a field of competitors. The festival has yielded a cookbook with recipes for 20 different Bloody Marys made with horseradish, as well as instructions for creating such delicacies as apple-horseradish chili, the braunschweiger-horseradish snowball, horseradish butter, horseradish candy, horseradish cheesecake and a drink called the P.O.W. composed of beef bouillon, horseradish and dill and served hot.

The festival's food-contest entries are made beforehand, but the Bloody Marys must be mixed on the spot. One year, Keller reports, the drink-contest winner was too drunk to make it to the stage for his award.

Farm contests seek the heaviest and most unusual roots. The heaviest one ever weighed in at about 6 pounds (horseradish averages a pound to 2-and-a-half pounds), and the oddities have included horseradish that grew through a corncob and a five-eighths-inch nut, as well as a root shaped like a pigtail or curlicue. Keller says that to the best of his knowledge, there have been no roots grown that resemble the face of Richard Nixon, which is hard to believe. (Every now and then other vegetables are discovered that are dead ringers for the defrocked president. It's nature's way.)

John's brother Louis, 78, adds, "Some of 'em (the oddities) are too vulgar to show." He is referring to the normally carrot-shaped roots that take on an especially erotic appearance. Heaven help us.

The center of attention for many, though, is probably the Horseradish Olympics. The root toss asks competitors to fling a horseradish root underhanded as far as they're able. The current record is a respectable 135 feet. "Root golf" uses a root carved into the shape of a golf ball and frozen. The first fairgoer to score a hole-in-one from 30 yards away wins $50 (three people have managed this in 13 years). The root-sacking contest requires contestants to run back and forth between a pile of roots and a sack, stuffing the bag to as heavy a weight as possible.

The much-anticipated horseradish-eating contest has been canceled; not long ago, it nearly claimed the life of a competitor. "It was only a 30-second deal," says Keller of the contest. "They put two tablespoons of horseradish on a hot dog, and then they'd give people four hot dogs. When they got down to 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30 seconds, this one woman shoved a whole damn thing (hot dog) in her mouth and she choked on the hot dog and then she turned blue." This development proved so frightening that the organizers of a popular nearby Italian festival canceled their pizza- and spaghetti-eating contests as well.

What's the scoop on this scary root? Horseradish is a member of the mustard family and derives its heat from the same component, mustard oil. The hot quality is only activated when the root is ground. The vinegar added in the pickling process stops the escalation of the heat and keeps it stable. Red horseradish is cut with sweet beets and is considerably milder than its white father.

The ancient Hebrews used the root as part of the Passover Seder meal and still do. The ancient Greeks used it as a back rub and aphrodisiac. Later, the bracing food was used as an expectorant and as a treatment for scurvy, tuberculosis, colic, food poisoning and headaches. Germans have been known to brew horseradish schnapps with a fiendish kick.

The 30 or so farms in southern Madison and northern St. Clair, Ill., counties make more of the stuff than any other single region. The potash-rich soil and mild weather of the Midwest give the horseradish just what it needs to thrive.

"News of the Weird" not long ago reported the story of a pair of Israeli brothers engaged in a pepper-eating contest. The challenge ended when one of them blew a hole through the wall of his small intestine. Pickled horseradish, consumed in moderation, can only boost the constitution. In the words of the 80-year-old Keller, "a lot of people say horseradish is too hot, so I say eat a little bit but eat it often."

The International Horseradish Festival takes place from 9:30 a.m.-9 p.m. June 3 and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. June 4 in Woodland Park, Pine Lake Road and Highway 159, Collinsville, Ill. Call 618-344-2884 for more info.

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