The pungent smell of horseradish, tinged with vinegar, clings to the walls, the workers and the machinery at Tulkoff Food Products Inc.'s plant in Canton. In a large room, batches of gnarly horseradish roots are carried up a conveyor and washed, and then tumbled into the first of two grinding mills.
It's been business as usual this past week at the plant on Conkling Street.
But for five days back in February, the company's automated process for crushing and blending the bitter root into a spicy condiment came to a standstill. That's when Tulkoff began its process of cleaning equipment to meet strict kosher standards for Passover, and fulfilling orders for stores to have Tulkoff's horseradish on shelves in time for Passover, which begins tomorrow night.
"Things are nice and quiet here right now," said Lee S. Rome, Tulkoff's chief executive officer. "For us, it's a peaceful week."
For Tulkoff, which does most of its business with huge food service companies such as Sysco Corp. and Columbia-based U.S. Foodservice, the annual production of kosher horseradish for Passover is more a labor of history and tradition than a money-making enterprise.
Horseradish is a vital part of the Passover Seder, the symbolic dinner that begins the eight-day commemoration of Moses leading Jewish slaves out of Egypt. The root represents the bitterness of slavery.
For Passover, the private company takes orders from grocery stores, stops production and begins the tedious process of cleaning every piece of equipment that comes into contact with horseradish and its ingredients. Tulkoff has made kosher-for-Passover horseradish for more than 50 years, said Rome.
According to kosher guidelines, products derived from grain can't be used. Instead of whole-grain vinegar, Tulkoff uses apple cider vinegar, which costs about four times as much. And instead of soybean oil, Tulkoff uses cottonseed oil.
Between stopping to clean equipment and using pricier ingredients, "we really absorb the whole cost of the process," Rome said. But, he added, "we really owe it to our faithful customers."
"I don't think that's unusual for a lot of companies who ultimately put together certified Passover goods," said Jeffrey Metzger, publisher of food retail trade magazine Food World.
Rome won't release annual sales figures for the company or how much horseradish it makes per year, but he said its production of kosher horseradish for Passover accounts for less than 5 percent of annual sales. Nationally, about 24 million pounds of horseradish roots are ground and processed to produce about 6 million gallons of prepared horseradish annually, according to the Horseradish Information Council.
A rabbi oversaw the entire cleaning and production process at Tulkoff's. Workers cleaned equipment and made horseradish on extended shifts, from 3 a.m. to 5 p.m. A normal day runs eight hours, Rome said.
Gaining kosher certification for Passover means that the Orthodox Union allows Tulkoff to display the letter "P" next to the letters "OU" on its label - an indicator that the horseradish complies with kosher-for-Passover guidelines.
"Everything was taken apart and kosherized," said Rabbi Raphael Ya' Acov Blugrond, a senior field supervisor for the Orthodox Union who's overseen the Tulkoff Passover production for the past 10 years. "Tulkoff is a kosher facility all year round, but for Passover they have special cleaning and ingredient requirements.
"The horseradish is still excellent. It bites. It still has a nip to it."
The company traces its roots to Harry and Lena Tulkoff, Jewish immigrants from Russia who had a fruit and vegetable stand in the 1920s. They later focused on selling their popular horseradish from their site on Baltimore's "Corned Beef Row" on East Lombard Street.
By 1980, Tulkoff's had outgrown that location and moved to the former F&M Schaeffer brewery site. Today, it has more than 150,000 square feet, including a city-block-size refrigerated storage area that can hold up to 5 million pounds of horseradish root, and a production facility in California.
Descendants of Harry and Lena Tulkoff - their son Martin Tulkoff, granddaughter Sandra Tulkoff Smiley and grandson Allen Tulkoff - are still part-owners of the company. Co-owners Rome and Henry E. Sulkowski manage the daily operations.