Eighty-two-year-old Beverly Ugent of Fox Point takes her horseradish seriously. Not the store-bought kind, but the homemade recipe she jars, labels and gifts to a growing list of eager recipients who slather it on matzo, gefilte fish and brisket.
Ugent has been making it since the 1980s — first with her late husband, Aaron, and then on her own since he died in 2000. She estimates she made about 40 jars last year for family, friends and members of Congregation Shalom (including the clergy), where she’s been a member for decades.
“It’s become a project of love,” says Ugent, a retired special education teacher and school psychologist. “It’s kind of a nice tradition of my husband’s that I’ve continued. Everybody looks forward to it and they kind of expect it.”
The process begins with sourcing the horseradish root. Lately she buys about 15 pounds, which warrants a special order.
“She wheels and deals at the grocery store to try to get the best deal,” says Ugent’s 52-year old daughter, Susie Berg, who lives in the Boston area. “She knows the manager… She brings her own knife in, because we keep kosher. They’re happy to cut it for her.”
Back at home, Ugent peels and chops.
“It’s hard not to cry — it’s very strong,” she says. “It’s kind of a good way to get all the tears out for the year.”
Then, the horseradish goes into the food processor — one used only for Passover — with white vinegar, sugar and canned beets. She sterilizes the jars, then attaches labels that Berg created. The labels say “Charain Man Horseradish,” because Aaron was the “horseradish man” (chrain or charain mean horseradish).
The final product is sweet, but still strong enough to clear sinuses. “I don’t want to put Manischewitz out of business, but many people say they like it better than store-bought,” Ugent says.
“The commercial horseradish that you buy, you don’t know how long ago it was made,” says Carol Richheimer of Mequon, Ugent’s lifelong friend since high school. “She makes it fresh.”
“Bev’s chrain is my absolute favorite and has a special place in my family’s fridge from Passover onwards,” Rabbi Noah Chertkoff, the senior rabbi at Congregation Shalom, wrote in an email. “There is something very special about Jewish foods that link us to memories of people who we love,” Chertkoff says.
Congregation Shalom Rabbi Emeritus Ronald Shapiro, who’s also on Ugent’s horseradish list, met Ugent and her husband after moving to Milwaukee in 1978. He says they were always dedicated, giving and active in the community, serving on temple committees and offering to help others without being asked.
“All of the messages that are inherent within Passover are reflected in their manner to treat people well,” Shapiro says. “Knowing the reality of hardships which permeate life, we are able to alleviate those hardships — the harshness of the chrain — by being there for others.”
This year — weeks before Passover — is Aaron’s 20-year yahrzeit. But thanks to Ugent, his ‘Charain Man’ legacy is very much alive.