By TIM ALEXANDER
MINONK, Ill. — Max Hood knows a thing or two about growing and processing horseradish – in particular, horseradish root.
While taking years to master the art of horseradish-making, the longtime central Illinois resident and native West Virginian has put down some roots of his own, in the form of a tight network of friends and family members he has introduced to his tasty, time-consuming hobby.
“I liked horseradish so much I really had to grow my own to get enough for myself and my friends and family – and we had four boys,” Hood, a retired Caterpillar, Inc. worker, said of his favorite condiment and its exalted status in his rural Woodford County home – where he lives now only with his wife, Carol.
Hood doesn’t just share the horseradish he grows in a simple, 12-by-24-foot plot in his rural backyard with his family, which includes four sisters and two brothers “back home” in West Virginia. Part of the 8-10 gallons he produces annually are also divvied up among friends and fellow horseradish aficionados.
That usually leaves enough for Hood to jar or freeze a few quarts to enjoy throughout the year at home.
Paying his growing skills forward has been important to Hood since he planted his first horseradish – a coarse Eurasian plant with docklike leaves cultivated for its thick, pungent root – many years ago.
“I got my first crowns from an old boy over in (nearby) Eureka (Illinois),” he said. “Now I help people in town and out in the country get their own patches started. Sometimes I barter with people for things like fresh ground pork. I’ll trade horseradish for it; you can’t beat horseradish on a fresh ground pork burger.”
Hood’s skills were publicly acknowledged by the horseradish community (yes, there is such a thing) when he took home a third-place ribbon in 2011 and a second-place ribbon in 2012 from the International Horseradish Festival recipe contest. It takes place each year in Collinsville, Ill., where some 80 percent of the world’s horseradish root is harvested by the area’s farmers and processed at local factories.
One of Hood’s sons, who resides in St. Louis, called his attention to the festival in nearby Collinsville. Now Hood is a regular contestant in the recipe contest and has his eye on the top prize in 2013. His first year, horseradish-infused dill pickles garnered him third-place honors.
“I buy the (whole dill) pickles, then open them up like a hot dog bun, take the seeds out and put fresh horseradish in. I then rim them with toothpicks and let them set for a week,” Hood shared, adding the horse-pickles are best served with crackers, or even peanut butter and crackers.
In 2012, he took second prize at the festival with his unique peach-rhubarb horseradish jelly. It’s excellent spread on grilled pork chops or over the top of cream cheese and crackers. “People laughed at me when I first made that jelly,” confided Hood, who’s now enjoying a scrumptious last laugh.
He won’t disclose what recipe he plans to showcase at the 2013 International Horseradish Festival, but he’s already anticipating digging and cutting horseradish roots from his garden in the spring to prepare a “sweet surprise” for the judges.