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Grinding Away at the Horseradish Business for Four Generations

11/24/2012 7:00 AM
By Dick Wanner Reporter

LANCASTER, Pa. — There’s a bit of theater to Michael Long’s horseradish stand at Lancaster’s Central Market in downtown Lancaster, Pa. There is the market itself, one of the city’s most cherished architectural treasures and the oldest continuously operating farmers market in the U.S. The market is a stage where the props are real, and include some of the some of the freshest and best-tasting vegetables, meats, cheeses, sweets and just about anything else you can put on a Lancaster County plate.

At the horseradish stand, there’s a revolving cast of characters. An impeccably dressed gentleman from Kenya, for example, recently wanted to know what a horseradish was, and what it tasted like and how it was grown. Horseradish doesn’t do well in most African climates, Long explained to him, because it needs water and a period of winter. The man tasted a spot of Long’s product and moved on without buying.

“I didn’t think he’d buy anything,” Long said after he left. “It’s not a part of their culture. I get German customers who know right away what horseradish is. French people don’t recognize it when they see it, but when they taste it, they know what it is because it’s used in some of their traditional recipes.”

A man with a health issue, whose accent was all Lancaster County, stopped by to tell Long about his latest treatment and the length of the needle by which it was administered. He filled Long in on the latest chapter of his odyssey to wellness, said he had to get to work and left empty-handed, which was clearly okay with Long, who seems to have at least as many friends at market as he has customers.

Kevin Anderson, the chef at Lancaster’s venerable Hamilton Club, stopped by for a chat, then ordered two gallons of freshly ground horseradish for delivery later. Isn’t two gallons, especially the freshly ground potent stuff, a lot of horseradish? “Yes,” Anderson said, “but our members eat it by the spoonful. They put it on seafood. Roast beef. We mix it with cream cheese and stuff tomatoes with it. I use it in a glaze for pork. If you take orange marmalade, horseradish and a little lemon juice, you have a nice dip for shrimp.”

“And have you tried Mike’s horseradish pickles? They’re the best,” he said.

It was an apt description, rendered as Anderson exited stage right on his way to another stand and another treat for his Hamilton Club regulars. Enter a man with an Indian accent, who wanted to know exactly how sweet was the lemonade that Long sells, and then bought a cup for half-a-buck.

There were regular customers who grabbed their jars of horseradish and kept moving, others who pondered over the several kinds of horseradish.

Then there is the actor-director-stage manager, Long himself, tallish and sturdy, wearing a fisherman’s cap, totally comfortable in his role as the market’s horseradish producer, and totally in command of his six-foot stage.

There’s no orchestra here, but there is an ancient and battered Crosley oscillating fan, which wafts a symphony of smells to the audience in the aisles. Anyone walking near the stand, or even an aisle or two over, can sample the pungent aroma of freshly ground horseradish roots. The wind coming from the fan is a reminder for Long’s regulars, and an enticement for everyone else.

“But that’s not really why it’s there,” Long said. “If you tried to grind horseradish roots without that fan, your eyes would water and sting so much you wouldn’t last a half hour.”

If you happened to be standing directly in front of the fan to take a picture of Long grinding a root, you would know exactly what he means. And you may not last half a minute, much less half an hour.

Long is clearly comfortable and happy with his six-foot storefront, the people he sees again and again, and the ones he sees for the first time, including the buyers and the non-buyers. It is likely in his DNA. His great-great-grandfather began selling horseradish in Germany in the 19th century, and his great-grandfather on his mother’s side first ground a horseradish root in the U.S. in 1901. Long is the fourth generation to sell horseradish to his Lancaster friends and neighbors.

He hopes there’ll be a fifth generation, and maybe more. Long, whose wife, Cynthia, passed away two years ago, is working closely with his adult children, a son in Colorado, and a son and two daughters in Lancaster, to grow the business beyond his market stand.

Andrew, the son in Colorado, is working on a website, longshorseradish.com, that’s set to launch in January. Nathan, the Lancaster son, helps Long prepare the roots for grinding. His two daughters, Abbie and Emily, are poised to fill the orders that will hopefully be coming through the website. Andrew and his wife, Sarah, have a son and daughter, and Nathan and his wife Emily have a baby boy.

So maybe there’s a sixth generation of horseradish entrepreneurs standing in the wings.

For the three generations before Long, horseradish was a part-time business. Long’s father, Charles, was a tinsmith by trade, but helped his aunt with her horseradish business, which moved from the streets of Lancaster to the indoor comfort of Lancaster Central Market in the 1930s. Eventually he bought the business and began making small improvements, like putting the product in glass jars. His uncle had packaged his product in waxed paper cones, folded over at the top, which customers carried home.

Charles and his wife, Rosemary, had four children, and the whole family helped in the horseradish business. Michael Long, a carpenter by trade, cut back on his remodeling business in 1990 to take over the market stand from his dad. Today, the horseradish business is his full-time occupation.

In addition to putting product in jars, Charles enhanced the offerings with mustard horseradish and a tangy cocktail sauce. Michael developed a barbecue sauce, horseradish pickles and a cranberry-citrus horseradish sauce. He whipped up the cranberry-citrus sauce for broiled fish — he puts it on a minute or so before the fish is done — but said it goes well with ham, too, or spread on a block of cream cheese and eaten with crackers.

“I have other ideas I’d like to try,” he said, “but I don’t want to get so busy with new things that I can’t keep up with the rest of the business.”


Given the prolonged winter, have you been able to do any of your spring planting?

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