O’Hara family’s Easter rooted in tradition
Sue and Jim Smerdell of O’Hara started planning their Easter work at Christmastime.
Carrying on a tradition from Sue Smerdell’s Hungarian and Polish families, they gather to make horseradish for the spring season.
Family and friends turned out at their Collinwood Drive home on March 30. They were drawn from Pittsburgh; Columbus, Ohio; Chicago; and Charlotte, N.C.
Three bays of the family’s garage framed workstations.
Sixty pounds of horseradish, a root vegetable, had to be peeled. They looked like bleached-out, overweight carrots, and touching them was strictly warned against because the veggie packs a burn.
The Smerdells’ son-in-law Dustin Widdoss warned everyone: “Make sure you don’t touch your face for half an hour after.”
At the second station, roots were cut into jumbo french fries. Each root starts about as big as a forearm.
The long, creamy-colored pieces get shuttled onward to the final table, where the Smerdells have two grinders set up. Both look like they’re right out of a 1950s kitchen, and one, in fact, was handed down through the family.
In addition to mincing horseradish to transform it into a condiment, the grinder is cleaned and used to chop walnuts for Easter nut rolls.
It takes two people to send the root sticks into the grinder while a third person turns the handle. Most volunteers last only about 10 minutes muscling the machine, partly because of fatigue but mostly because of the tangy smell wafting upward.
The family spreads out in the garage with the doors rolled up no matter the weather, but this year, mild temperatures on an early spring day made for comfortable working conditions.
A crisp breeze sent the distinctive smell up the driveway to welcome workers.
Sue Zsolcsak Smerdell grew up near Mt. Pleasant and recalls her father going to the back of the chicken coop to dig up gnarly horseradish roots each year before making a spicy relish.
Jim Smerdell said he has toyed with the mix since the couple took over the tradition a decade ago.
He thinks he’s perfected it so the recipe is both tangy and slightly sweet.
The prep work lasted about two hours. Jim Smerdell manned five aluminum roasters filled with a deep layer of minced horseradish, moving them upstairs to the kitchen. A soup pot of secret-recipe brine was waiting to be mixed in.
The pans were baked slowly before 81 jars were filled with 16 ounces each of the pungent condiment.
Jars were divvied up, with son Brian and daughters Diana and Sarah each grabbing some, along with others who volunteered.
Jewish friends will get early gifts in time for Passover Seder.
On Easter, many of the family will gather around the Smerdells’ table. They’ll use three jars at least, eating it with homemade cheese, hard-boiled eggs or kielbasi, they said.
The family said horseradish will be featured at many family gatherings over the next few months, but the joy of creating it makes it taste even better.
Horseradish has a long history. In Christian myths, the tears caused by the bitter herb are a reminder of tears shed for Christ’s suffering.
For the Smerdells, it is both history and future.
“It’s so cool my kids love this,” Sue Smerdell said. “It brings them all together, and that’s the greater gift.”