There’s an annual party that occurs each spring in Riverhead that people will tell you is the best foodie event on the North Fork.
It’s not hosted by a local chef or winery and there’s no advertising budget associated with it. It’s not even really open to the public.
Despite all of this, the annual Riverhead horseradish party has gained a lot of attention over the years. It’s even been called the worst kept secret on the North Fork.
“I’ve gone up to people over the years and asked them who they’re with and they tell me ‘No one really invited us, but we’ve been coming every year and it’s the greatest party of all,’ ” recalled Pete Danowski, a Riverhead attorney who co-founded the event in 1970.
Much of the event’s origins have been lost in the fog of thousands of pounds of horseradish and, perhaps more accurately, through the many beers and cocktails consumed at the gatherings.
Danowski said credit for the gatherings, which have no formal name, goes to a pair of late journalists, Don Smith and Art Penny. Smith, who lived in Riverhead, covered the courts for Newsday. Penny lived in Mattituck and did the same for the former daily Long Island Press.
Oftentimes they’d find themselves having lunch with the prosecutors and defense attorneys they covered. One day after a few drinks and hours of good company while awaiting a verdict, Penny threw out the idea of having Smith and some of the lawyers over to his house. He had a garden full of horseradish and he thought they’d help him harvest and process the spicy vegetable in preparation for Easter — indulging in food and drinks throughout the day.
Nearly 50 years later, the event, which current organizers say has included more than 400 people some years, is still going strong, outliving many of the men and women who made it possible in the beginning. It’s bounced around to various locations in its five decades, but two things have remained constant: It’s held on the Wednesday before Easter and it always centers around preparing horseradish for the holy day.
Locavores will often point to asparagus, the first green to arrive at farm stands, as a true sign that spring has arrived on the North Fork. Receiving far less attention is horseradish, which is prepared primarily as a condiment but is also harvested this time of year.
The vegetable’s roots here, pun very much intended, date back to the arrival of the earliest English settlers in the mid-17th century, though historians say the Egyptians used horseradish as an aphrodisiac as far back as 1500 B.C. and it was used by the early Greeks to treat aches and pains.
One of the first newspaper accounts of horseradish on the North Fork was in the May 1, 1879, issue of The Long Island Traveler, which joked that “if you have tears to shed, shed them now” because horseradish and young onions were both available at markets.
While the English brought horseradish here, the Polish, who make it an important part of Easter dinner, are perhaps most closely associated with the vegetable today. (Horseradish is also an essential at Passover Seder.)
Wendy Zuhoski, who owns the eponymous deli in Mattituck, called horseradish a must-have in the Polish kitchen.
“It is in our blood,” she said recalling how her father and a friend made their own horseradish for more than 20 years.
“The secret recipe is written on the garage wall” of her late father’s home, she said. “[I can’t] give away the secret, but it always included a half gallon of vodka.”
Today, horseradish supplied year round by neighbor Henry Bokina is a staple for many of the sandwiches and condiments prepared at her deli.
It’s Polish pride that has mostly kept the Riverhead party going for 49 years, said current host and organizer Bobby Bugdin.
“It’s just this Polish tradition,” he said. “You gotta have horseradish for Easter and these guys have taken it to the next level.”
As Bugdin rattles off a list of some of the dishes people bring along with their horseradish, it’s impossible not to salivate. Heros, kielbasa, deep-fried ribs, chicken wings, roast pork loin and filet mignon are all among the regular options being served at what has become an outrageous potluck affair.
Bugdin, who’s hosted the event the past couple years at his warehouse, said his father attended one of the earliest parties and it’s been a family tradition since. He said there’s at least 200 people there every year.
Danowski said sometimes there are too many people for the amount of horseradish they have, though everyone is expected to bring a jar. He mentioned the support the party has received through donations from Schmitt Farms, which is widely recognized for its horseradish. The company that makes Gold’s horseradish has also done the same.
The event’s popularity made it impossible for Penny and others to host it at home, so over the years it’s been hosted at various Riverhead locations like Martha Clara Vineyards and Long Ireland Beer Company.
“I had it my house one year and even videotaped the cleanup. I was so proud of how we did,” he said. Needless to say, his wife thought they could do better.
While Danowski no longer organizes the event, he still loves talking about it, especially when getting a chance to rattle off some of the names of the people who were there at the beginning or were steady contributors over the years. (Nick Negosh, Dave Clayton, Timmy and Richie Latham, Don Burns, Neil Rogers, Dick O’Dea, the Rev. Peter Garry, Vinny Sassa and Barbara Blass were some of the folks he took time to mention.)
When Negosh, a fellow prosecutor, passed away in 1990, it was Smith who wrote the obituary for Newsday. Of course, he worked in a casual reference about the parties they had been having for two decades.
“Negosh was one of the charter members of the East End Horseradish and Scalloping Foundation — a loose association of police, attorneys, reporters and judges who annually make horseradish the week before Easter and who, until the Brown Tide decimated the shellfish population, always dredged scallops in Peconic Bay in September,” Smith said of his friend.
The event was written about again in Smith’s obituary eight years later and once again when Penny died a few years after that.
All these years later, the low-key event they created is something a couple hundred members of their communities still look forward to every year.
“I’ve always said, it’s an event that can bring friends and enemies together,” Danowski said.
And what better way to kick off Easter week.