A seasonal battle is underway, as fierce as any on a basketball court. But this one plays out in church undercrofts and high school cafeterias.
It’s the age-old Lenten question: tartar sauce or horseradish?
One is sweet and tangy, the other sharp and spicy. Few things separate us like this oft-heated controversy. And perhaps that’s the true March madness.
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A spicy start
Horseradish isn’t necessarily a German thing, but Germans certainly had a hand in it. The English word is believed to come from the German name for it, “meerrettich.” Somehow that became a word that sounded like “mare-radish,” and well, the rest is history.
Horseradish.org (really) says Greeks once used it as an aphrodisiac. It was dispensed as a treatment for food poisoning in England.
And now, it’s slathered atop our fried fish on Lenten Fridays.
That is, unless you go for its tart but creamier condiment cousin, tartar sauce.
And this where Cincinnati really comes into the picture.
A Cincinnati Enquirer article from 1891 describes a tartar sauce made to accompany brains. Thankfully, we stick with fried fish these days.
We also tend to let the professionals handle the recipes. Frisch’s tartar sauce has near-cult status, and the local restaurant chain sells more than 120,000 gallons each year. Generations of Cincinnatians have dipped their crinkle-cut fries into Frisch’s famous tartar sauce.
Dann Woellert is one of them. He’s the author of “Historic Restaurants of Cincinnati,” and a self-proclaimed “food etymologist.” He says, “Frisch’s tartar sauce has passed the mid century age and certainly falls into a Cincinnati legacy food.” Think of it on the Mount Rushmore of Cincinnati favorites: along with Skyline, LaRosa’s and Montgomery Inn.
It’s about taste, history
But he points out it’s not just the taste and longevity, but the story of Frisch’s tartar sauce that should put it on the Cincinnati food map. The famous fish topper has been made by the same Reading company, now called Food Specialties, since 1946. And even though Frisch’s chef John Zenk uses it daily, even he has no idea of the actual recipe.
“It’s a secret for me, too,” Zenk admits. “I wouldn’t want to know it.”
He also takes it further than fish sandwiches. “It’s a great spread or dip,” he says. “On a ham sandwich, lettuce and tomato, you could throw it on there. It’s mayonnaise and dill pickle. It’s two ingredients in one. ” He also suggests adding it to tuna and egg salads.
His preference for tartar sauce over horseradish may not surprise you. “If you mixed your horseradish with some sour cream or mayonnaise, it might be okay. But I like the tartar sauce. The dill pickle that’s in it – I actually like dill pickle on my fish sandwich. That extra dill, that tang, it adds a lot. “
So when you approach the condiment table this week at your favorite neighborhood fish fry, remember the history. Remember the legacy. But please try to forget the fact that like a true philistine, I sometimes use both horseradish AND tartar sauce.
I figure – we have enough division. I’m not taking sides.