October 3, 2003
The Chicago Horseradish King is a short, lively, slump-shouldered man who has made a living the last 35 years by selling his condiments door-to-door at saloons across the city, from Hegwisch to Andersonville, from Lincoln Park to Cicero. Whenever he enters a tavern, the King will likely bellow some such phrase as, "Who needs heartburn here?" in an accent that lays an essence of Borscht Belt over a base of working-class Chicago. A chain smoker, he has a voice like radio static. To the nearby patrons—normally male, normally rotund, normally leaning with silence over poker machines or glasses of yellow beer—the bluntness of this sales technique sometimes has a startling effect, like a blast of horseradish going up the nose. His delivery vehicle, a beat-up Chevy van, sits outside at the curb. In the back are two 50-gallon Igloo coolers that contain packages of pierogi and bags of Polish sausage and two-pound pieces of smoked pork shoulder butt, vacuum-wrapped. These, however, are products ancillary to the King's primary trade, off-white and bottled in 16-ounce jars, $4 a pop. Making his way down the bar, canvassing for commerce, his custom is to grasp two jars in his right hand, cap-to-cap.
As with most titular beings of this nature—of Mattresses, say, or Air Conditioners—the Chicago Horseradish King is self-coronated. Not surprisingly he cares with passion about his product, the recipe for which is ancient and highly guarded. "It's like nothin' you can buy in the store," he says. "Only way you get it's through me!" The King has a way of expressing all statements in exclamation, and with some annoyance, as if in reply to a question so obvious it's painful for him to respond to. Hardly any of his clients or casual acquaintances know him by his real name, which is Thaddeus Joseph Kozlowski. While working the street he goes by still a different moniker, invented early in his career, a stage name, his brand name—Heartburn Ted.
Heartburn Ted is limber and talkative and 72 years old. The buckle on his belt is a brass five-pointed star, the badge of the sheriff, which, as it happens, he was, from 1978 until he retired in 1994, in Cook County, working mostly as a bailiff in the criminal courts. The son of Polish immigrants ("Don't say a hundred percent," he likes to explain about his ethnic makeup, "I'm a hundred proof!"), he speaks that language fluently, though he has never set foot in the motherland. His bilingualism often comes in handy. If confronted by a panhandler while on a sales-run, "I always answer em in Polish," he says. "It confuses the hell out of em, and then they leave me alone!" He has been married 48 years and has five grown children and four grandchildren. Last year he underwent a series of operations to remove the cancer from his bladder, but any ill effects he may have suffered from the disease he has since overcome. "That's going back a couple months," he says with an historical detachment. "Four surgeries then bang. I'm back to being the horseradish man!"
The King has a pillow of a paunch, long wiry arms that seem to hang all the way to his knees, and no neck to speak of. He appears somehow ready to grapple. Bristly gray hair covers a head of irregular shape, like an exotic nut. His features are highly mobile. Whenever he lifts his eyebrows in surprise or disgust or mirth, which is often, his forehead crinkles up like busted Venetian blinds. His face looks a bit smashed, and on it here and there are patches of discoloration. In a day he goes through four packs of Marlboro Lights—though he claims to donate more than half this amount to the needy—and a portion of all that ash seems to have caught in the crags of his face. His nose is bulbous and wide of pore. All in all, his mug suggests the entire, backbreaking history of the peasant. In certain lights he has the profile of Nixon.
Inside a bar, trying to make a sale, Heartburn Ted enjoys engaging in a kind of anti-palaver. After his initial queries—"Anybody here want horseradish? Pierogi? Polish? Smoked Butt?"—the real salesmanship begins. If a woman seems reticent to purchase some pierogi, for instance, he may tell her, "You eat enough a these, your husband'll have to take you out to the coal yard."
There will be confusion. "What?"
"Yeah! So he can get your certified weight."
Sometimes a new customer may express an unwillingness to purchase food not originating from the shelf of a supermarket. Jars of Heartburn Ted's horseradish have no labels, no lists of ingredients, and therefore no way of calming the prospective buyer into believing that the jar of white paste in Ted's hands isn't possibly aswarm with, say, Ecoli. To these sorts of people Ted will respond, "In the history of me sellin' this stuff it only killed one person I know of. When he brought the jar home, his wife hit him in the head with it!" With his regular clientele, problems also arise. A man may still be at work on a batch of horseradish he bought last week, last month, last year. The King has a solution. "Use it on waffles then!" he yells. "It tastes like shit but you get rid a the jar!"
Heartburn Ted has a routine, but not an altogether strict one. Five days a week he rousts himself at 8AM, unless he's got a hangover, in which case he may just stay home and work a crossword. Other scrapped workdays follow from rain. "I don't mind snow," he says, "but the rain I can't put up with it." On weekends he will sometimes attempt to make up a lost route.
If the weather holds and he feels all right, he will head out of the house by 11AM. On a schedule that depends on the level of his inventory, he picks up his stock—meat products from the New Packing Company, at Lake and Ashland, pierogi from a mysterious source he would rather not divulge, and his horseradish and other jarred products (including beat horseradish, which is a reddened and milder version of the original, popular with the European immigrant crowd; "shrimp sauce," otherwise known as cocktail sauce, which contains Ted's horseradish in addition to catsup; "nippy sauce", a meek condiment, a combination of cream cheese and horseradish, designed for the feint of heartburn; and horse relish, which consists of an array of chopped and pickled vegetables)—from a small bottler in Joliet, or "Jolly-et," as Ted pronounces it, the identity of whom he'd also rather keep secret. "I don't think he'd appreciate the publicity," Ted says. "I'm gonna be 73, and this guy's older than I am!"
His inventory replenished—he usually has about $1200 worth of merchandise stored in his pre-route van—Ted waits for the bars to begin gathering clientele before setting out to hustle. Normally he doesn't "get onto the street" until around 1PM. He bides his time at his favorite watering hole, the Sportsman Club, on Western near Augusta, not far from his boyhood home, and drinks soda pop—before his route he abstains, afterwards he will not—and talks in Polish to Ella, the bartender. At the Sportsman he does not attempt to sell anything to anyone. "They're a bunch a cuckoos in there," he says. "They want their horseradish for free!" He stops, he revises. "They want it for free and with a ten percent discount!"
Late morning at the Sportsman, Ted also runs into a few of his cronies, including John Papan, a retired tool-and-die man who chomps nickel cigars. Ted sometimes refers to Papan as "the Hungarian bastard." At the Sportsman not long ago, Papan remarked with surprise that Heartburn Ted had decided to arise from bed and put in an honest day's work.
"Tad-eus!" Papan began. "If it's too hot you don't work. If it's too cold you don't work. If you get drunk, you don't work. And if it comes up you don't work!"
"Christ," Ted growled, hunched over the bar. "Definitely not!"
The weekly orbit in which Heartburn Ted moves begins, on Mondays, by going north on Racine, driving up Clark Street as far as Foster, then heading back south down Western, then south-southeast down Lincoln, stopping at about 24 bars along the way. Tuesdays he travels to Bridgeport, Calumet City and far-afield Hegwisch, all the way down to 134th Street and Baltimore, near to the Indiana line. Wednesdays he's back on the northside, moving in long switchbacks west on Fullerton, east on Diversey, west on Addison, east on Montrose. Thursdays take him to the west side along Irving Park Road, then north on Milwaukee, then back south down Elston. Fridays represent by far his biggest day, in terms of sales as well as territory, encompassing some 60 bars and 32 miles. He guts the Southside, starting south down Western, weaving back-and-forth across Kedzie in the Fifties and Sixties, south down Kedzie again until he's underneath the landing pattern of the Midway Airport, north on Pulaski to First Avenue, and finally north-northeast on Archer back into town. "You see I got the city all broke down into runs. I drive a painted line," he says. "If that van was a horse I wouldn't have to steer. It'd know the route by heart!"
Heartburn Ted belongs to that class of wandering huckster who follow in a direct line of decent from those neighborhood draymen who once sold such things as ice or dirt or silhouette art out of carts drawn by donkeys. Beast and dray in one, his 1981 Chevrolet van is brown with beige racing stripes. Age has faded its paint, rust has scabbed its chassis. Many months of parking outside taverns and running violently against curbs has whitewalled the tires. The ladder on the rear door has come loose at the hinges and hangs cockeyed. The spare on the other door has worked off the hub. There are no seatbelts. The van looks as though it should not belong to the Chicago King of Anything, but possibly instead to a hickabilly who got badly mulct. ("Hickabilly" is Heartburn Ted's appellation for anyone on earth born outside Chicago. He himself grew up on Noble and Thomas, at the time a heavily Polish neighborhood, and now lives in Jefferson Park, now a heavily Polish neighborhood.) A spring recently broke in the passenger seat. If he's expecting guests, Ted must lash the van's cocktail table to the seatback with rope and a small I-beam, so as to keep the passenger, should he or she wish to lean back at all, from toppling into the position of a dental patient. Progressing along a sales route, the smell of gasoline inside the cab escalates with each passing mile. By the end of a run so dense are the fumes that one wonders at the wisdom of lighting up another Marlboro. Into a tin tray resting firmly atop the drink holder he ashes his cigarettes. "Another thing I got a ghost in these wipers," Ted remarks as they rub of their own accord across a dry windshield. The odometer reads 134,000, a small number for a car more than 20 years old. It may have looped a couple times. He's owned the thing only for a year, before which he drove a 1989 nine-passenger wood-paneled Ford Estate station wagon. "I ran it down to the ground. In a year I put 25,000 miles on it, bringing the speedometer up to 234,000." It is unclear, here, whether Ted is malapropping on purpose. He claims to have sold the Estate last year to a homeless guy who wanted to use the Estate as a home—price tag $500.
Ted plans on upgrading his dray sometime soon. The van has failed to meet his expectations. "I haven't put maybe 10,000 miles on it. I had it standing a year. I had to replace everything—alternators, modulators, undulators, you name it I put it in that thing! In winter I'm dumpin' it. I'm gonna get myself something a little classier." Some of Ted's friends, who have helped him out from time to time under the hood, diagnose the van's problems a little differently. "Da only thing wrong with dat truck," says Joe Wojcik, one of Ted's friends, whose upper-front teeth are missing, "is da loose lip behind da wheel!"
Heartburn Ted has a low opinion of many of the bars where he sells his goods, and is pessimistic most of the time about the possibility of getting a dollar once inside them. "This Polish bar here," he may say, for instance, just before entering an establishment, "there's nothin' in there but a little old lady scratchin' her ass and combin' here hair but there ain't no business in there!" Or: "This is a guaranteed flop." Or: "Their clientele is people that don't eat." Or: "Sometimes you walk into this joint and the bartender ain't even in there. I just stop by to aggravate em. Let em know I'm still around!"
The customers at certain saloons are apt to give the King a hard time. Rummies occasionally will throw their drinks on him. Rummies will attempt to fight him. Liquor having invested them with a sense of superiority, rummies will sometimes attempt to exercise their wits at the expense of this curious old creature with his horseradish. Heartburn Ted, however, brooks no nonsense. He puts down his jars, squares his chest to the offender, and stares at the man authoritatively. The sheriff in him emerges. Once, at a bar called Gambler's, on Pulaski and Argyle, Ted made his pitch to an inebriated biker, normally a class of customer gung-ho for horseradish. (Its heat tests their machismo.) When Ted asked if this biker wanted any heartburn, the biker sneered and made a lewd remark, to which Ted replied, "You motherfucking punk you! If I was 65 years old again, I'd kill you dead!"
"And he didn't say a word," Ted says, proudly recalling the story from his stool at the Sportsman. "The whole bar started laughin'. They stood up and gave me applause!
"Always put em down when they get like that. You can't let em get the best of ya." He shakes his head. "I carried a gun for years and they never bothered me. I'd run into these sons of bitches and I'd put down my horseradish and I'd say, 'You know who you're talkin' to?'"
Who they were talking to, up until 1994, was a man who carried a Smith & Wessen .357 magnum revolver on his hip and .357 five-shot revolver under his trouser cuff. He says he became a sheriff in 1978 because of a gag that went a little far. A tavern-owner friend of Ted's suggested, as a joke, that he run for state representative against Alfred Ronan, a candidate backed by Daniel David Rostenkowski. "We said: 'Let's try and piss Rosty off,'" Ted recalls, explaining his campaign platform. Given Rostenkowski's reputation as a mob shill, this was a dangerous proposition, but the idea captured Heartburn Ted's imagination, and the joke eventually became serious. Already famed within his district for his horseradish, Ted drummed up a large number of supporters. So many, in fact, that one morning just before the primary Ted stepped onto his front porch and found, resting inside one of the flower pots hanging from the canopy above, the severed head of a German shepherd. Ted says, "It's a mafia sign that your head's gonna be in the next planter if you don't get the fuck out the race." On another day, he found the windows of his station wagon smashed and his campaign literature strewn about the pavement. Election Day came and went and Thaddeus Kozlowski lost by 300 votes, or so Thaddeus claims today: "The first edition of the Tribune had me as the winner. The second edition had me as the also-ran." (This is a figurative notion, since the Tribune by 1978 had only one daily printing.) "He was a nice guy, Al Ronan, but I shoulda beat him. I probably wouldn't have done any better in Springfield than he did, though. I would've gone down there and been a rabble-rouser! What the fuck what I'd've done in the state legislature?" Ted asks. "Fart and say excuse me?"
A call came in the day following the vote. "You scared the pants off me!" said Daniel David Rostenkowski, as Ted recalls it. "So he asked me did I want to be a bridge tender or a did I want to be a building inspector or a sheriff or a I-don't-know-what-else. So I said, 'Which one's the least work?' And then I said, 'And which one's the one you're not involved in!' And he said, 'Sheriff.' And so I took it!"
Throughout his tenure—while surviving hits placed on his head by street gangs, while thwarting armed-robberies with his off-duty magnum, while breaking up fights in the cellblocks, while escorting the convicted from the courtrooms to the clink—he continued to sell his horseradish. Meanwhile, his constabulary side-job allowed him to develop some key new markets. "If I was to open a bar," Ted says today, "I'd open one right across from a police station—and get rich immediately."
Among his most lucrative stops today is a tavern called Simpson's, on Roosevelt and Western, a hangout for judges, lawyers, cops and sheriffs from the nearby criminal court at 26th and California, where Ted once put in long hours. Painted on Simpson's front window is a sign that reads "Branch One." "Every court has a branch number and that's number one," Ted says, "so you figure it out!" Ted is sentimental about his old workmates. On each item in his repertoire, he grants policemen and firemen a discount of 50 cents. At the 13th Precinct, where many of his old cop friends still work, he gives his product away. He hits Simpson's on Fridays, and like many of the stops on his route, the bar serves his horseradish with the food on its menu, and retails jars to patrons who may have missed the King on a particular week. "Simpson's is very proud of Ted's stuff," says Robert Morales, the bar manager. "But it's too hot for me. I'm a Mexican and it's too hot for me."
Another of the King's favorite stops is a bar and banquet hall called Crowbar (not to be confused with the nightclub of the same name) on 106th Street and Avenue H, almost to the Indiana border, to which Ted sells at least one case of horseradish per week. On every table in the banquet hall sits a jar of Heartburn Ted. During one visit to the Crowbar just before Easter a few years ago, Ted sold seven cases. His busiest season, by far, comes in the weeks before that holiday, when the meals of people of Eastern European decent require great quantities of Heartburn Ted's dressing. Lent also summons from those same Eastern European neighborhoods a great quantity of Heartburn Ted impersonators, at least according to Heartburn Ted. "See, with the Easter rush, so many people pop outta the woodwork. They'll say, 'I'm working for Ted because of the Easter rush.' But no matter what my customers won't buy. They say, 'What kind of garbage is this! We'll wait till Ted comes in.' Because Easter is a bonus. Anybody can make a quick buck sellin' horseradish at Easter."
Heartburn Ted is undoubtedly acquainted with more saloons than anyone else in Chicago. Barfly, the bar-floor throwaway magazine, once consulted the King for a piece they were doing on the resorts of Western Avenue, a tract of land akin to Third Avenue, New York, when it comes to density of pubs. More than those places currently functioning, however, Ted undoubtedly knows more defunct bars than any other person in Chicago. He has made a study of it.
Out on a run with the scholar, reclining in his van's slack passenger seat, a guest will receive a guided tour of lost trade. Passing by some stretch of avenue, he is as likely as anything to say, "This was a bar and that was a bar, and that was a bar over there. I used to be on this street a half hour with all the bars I had to stop at. Now they're all gone." By his estimation the city at one time had 4800 drinking places. He marks the peak at sometime in the 1980s. He believes the number has now dropped to around 2200. Contemplating this sometimes makes him gloomy. "I feel terrible Daley's closing down all these bars," he says. "Revoking licenses for any garbage offense. And you can't buy a liquor license in this city like you used to unless you got a Lettuce Entertain You ticket. Unless you're a big corporation. Mom and pop bars are on their way out." Behind the wheel of his van, in between stops at mom-and-pops still alive, he lists the names of the dead. Granny Goodwrench, Linda's Side Pocket, Club Bambi and Penny Lane. Big Mo's, Who Nose, Big Al's and Dirty Dick's. The Chandelier Lounge, the Playground Lounge, the Wooden Shoe, the Western Front. Bill's Tap and Wally's Lounge and Colby's Corner and Hemingway's. Blase's and Ivan's and Phyllis's and Mac's and Marie's and John's (51st Street) and John's (11th Street). The Duck Inn, the Old Goat's Inn, Just One More and Amazing Grace—a tally, a fraction of his memory, which excludes, of course, the astonishing number of no-name bars with which Chicago has always been laden.
Friday, somewhere deep on the southside, well into his run, Heartburn Ted becomes consumed by loss. He also gets a little angry. "This used to be one of the best bars in Chicago and now they opened a Mexican restaurant there. Nobody's in there! Look! They're starving. I'll spot em two weeks before they're outta business." Many of his former markets have swung with the demographic vicissitudes. "This was a Polish bar but now it's Spanish. There's no use my goin' in there now! They can't even laugh in English." Monday, somewhere high up on the northside, the sites of so many long-gone taverns strike similar chords of melancholy. He says, "This used to be a fine German bar but they yuppisized it and now they're starvin' to death! . . . These places on Webster it's all youngsters, all your yuppie crowed. I don't go no more into none a these places." Yuppies, for Ted, might as well laugh in alien languages, too. "I stay away from em," he says with the tone of a zoo-goer wanting to avoid the reptile house. "If I talk to a hundred of these people, they all wanna know what horseradish is. They don't know! That's what these yuppies say to me. They say, 'What is it? Whaddaya do with it? Is it made from horses?'"
With the passage of years this has all added up to a lot of lost dollars for Heartburn Ted. "Used to take me 13 days to do all the bars on the route," he says broodingly. "Now with all these that closed I can take care of it in five. Three runs I lost completely. Augusta, Armitage, Division—it's nowhere now! You wanna talk about areas lost! Calumet City, Cicero—same way. Bridgeport's another one I got only four stops on and used to have 40! I used to get rid of 30 cases a week. Now I'm lucky it's ten. It's a dyin' business. It is!"
Ted got his start as a roving street peddler some thirty-eight years ago, in 1965, when he began selling specialty-made bumper stickers much like he sells horseradish now—by bar-hopping. Bumper stickers as merchandise are not as unlikely as they may seem, because for many years Heartburn Ted worked as a professional lithographer, first as a teenaged apprentice for a printer named John Gervens, then some years later as an employee of the Padlow Lithographic Company, and then as the owner of his own small shop, a storefront on Noble and Blackhawk. Between his apprenticeship and Padlow, moving successively back in time, he had driven trucks, both long and short haul, driven a cab, tended bar, and performed an assortment of duties wearing an asbestos bodysuit on the flight deck of the U.S.S. Siboney, CVE 112, Atlantic Fleet, 1948-1952. Thaddeus, who enlisted just after high school and before he had a chance to receive his draft card, spent his four naval years enjoying himself and dodging any untoward responsibility. He befriended the ship's cook—"If the captain got a T-Bone so did I!"—and at discharge weighed 238 pounds. He held fast to seaman, first class. "I always got busted," he explains. "I never held a rank long enough to sew a stripe on."
Ted's entry into the printing trade probably had something to do with his father, Henryk Kozlowski, born in a village in northern Poland ("He was a Polish hillbilly," Ted says. "You don't even want me to spell the name of his hometown"). Henryk earned his living as a painter. In Poland he put fanciful decorative trim on the exteriors of cars and trucks; among stylish motorists at that time in that place, this trend—like spinning hubs and axel hydraulics now—was all the rage. In the U.S., he earned his keep by painting murals on the walls of the many brewery-owned beer gardens and taprooms that sprung up following the repeal of Prohibition. For his barroom compositions—scenes of the bucolic, of the happy peasantry going hard at their happy labor, of fishermen hauling in nets at sea, of wooded escarpments and wild-flower meadows, a less-cartoonish, less-acclaimed Thomas Hart Benton—he charged $5 apiece. This was during the Depression, and Ted seems to have acquired from his father a sense of commercial proportion.
Ted's shop at Noble and Blackhawk went under in 1966, after less than two years of operation. He had extended lines of credit that never stopped extending. Soon after it closed, he downsized, and relocated his headquarters to the inside of a bar, the Club Esquire, now defunct, at 1343 North Greenview. His friend was the owner. "In those days I couldn't buy a pack a cigarettes," Ted says, which is his way of measuring a man's level of penury. He put a small printing press at the back of the bar, and paid a nominal rent. At some point he acquired, on the cheap, a hot dog stand, and installed it out front, on the curb. Although it enjoyed only moderate success—neighborhood wags soon dubbed the dogs "cold rubbers"—it marked Ted's entrée into the world of food distribution.
But bumper stickers proved the livelier commerce. "In '66 or '67 when everybody was protesting I came up with a bumper sticker. Everybody was sayin' all the time, 'Down with this,' and 'Down with that,' so I came up with one that said, 'Down with Panty Hose!' And I sold a bunch of em! I had this system I would make em in my car. You tell me what you want I could make it right there. At this Irish bar on Kedzie, it was called the Beehive, they had me make this bumper sticker. It said, 'Free Leahy.' I guess Leahy, he was a regular, he got out on bond. When I came back the next week, they wanted 50 more bumper stickers: 'Jail Leahy.' I wish I had a list of all my bumper stickers. You couldn't print most of em today. I had the Irish Power, the Jewish Power, the Polish Power, I had every kinda power."
One day on his bumper sticker-route, around 1967, Ted ran into an entrepreneur who had fallen on hard times. The man, whom Ted remembers only as "Max," had purchased for resale ten cases of horseradish—Ted knows not from what source—but had been unable to move the merchandise. Picturing his neighborhood of horseradish-mad Eastern Europeans, Ted sensed an opportunity. He bought the cases for $15, he says, half the price that Max had paid. A small problem, however, soon emerged. Out on the street Ted listened as prospective horseradish-eaters made an identical inquiry—a refrain that contained a single name:
"Is that Slowik's?"
"Deese eese Slovik, ja?"
"If that ain't Slowik's I ain't buyin' that."
Vincent Slowik and his wife Agnes Slowik had, since 1937, owned and operated a famous Polish restaurant at the intersection of Milwaukee and Belmont—Slowik's International Grill. Arriving in the U.S. in 1910 from the outskirts of Krakow, Agnes had stored in her mind the recipe for a potent old-country horseradish that, Ted says, "if you forgot yourself and had a spoonful, you'd be sorry. It was no mystery. Slowik had the best stuff on the street. Customers come in there and got their nose zapped." It was known as "Slowik's Delight" or, as one newspaper called it, "Polish Dristan," an allusion to the alleged medicinal qualities of the Delight (and horseradish in general). To hear Ted tell it, diners headed to Slowik's only to eat the horseradish—would you like some supper with your horseradish? Max's was not from Slowik's. This circumstance did not deter the man who would become Heartburn Ted.
"Sure this is Slowik's!"
Within two days he had sold the ten cases for $150, a profit margin wide enough that he saw a future in it. For a brief period he made the stuff himself in his apartment, sending root after root through a big food processor, but that didn't work out too well. "It stinks like a motherfucker when you grind it! You can't go near that room without a gas mask!" Soon Ted went on a mission. He needed to find a manufacturer, and for several days he gumshoed around Chicago, knocking on the door of nearly every bottler in the city. No one made horseradish. Then one evening he walked into a small plant on the southside, owned and operated by a man he remembers only as "the Bohemian." His list of products consisted of two. Dill pickles, horseradish. In luck more than he knew, Ted discovered sometime later that the Bohemian had the exclusive manufacturing contract for Slowik's Delight. Not an unreasonable man, the Bohemian agreed, after hearing the figures, to reveal Agnes's recipe to the upstart, at least according to Heartburn Ted. "Slowik wasn't a big customer of the Bohemian's," he explains. "He sold only a couple bottles a week. I was gonna sell ten, twenty, thirty cases a week!"
(The Slowiks used their acclaimed condiment primarily in-house, but if customers wanted any, they'd sell a few jars for off-premise consumption, to the tune of about 1000 cases a year, says Matthew Slowik, third son of Vincent, throwing doubt onto Ted's recollection of events. Matthew Slowik, who ran the restaurant after his father's death, has never heard of Heartburn Ted.)
If this was an act of industrial espionage, Ted will not admit it. "He didn't have no copyright or patent or anything! He just had a product that all the European people liked. The big thing was the name Slowik. The brand like they like to say today." A few years after the Bohemian spilled the root, so to speak, in 1971, Vincent Slowik passed away (Agnes had died four years earlier), and in 1980 his descendants sold the restaurant. The Slowik brand has since faded into history, and in its place Heartburn Ted has risen. He says, "In the past 15 years I haven't heard his name once."
Horseradish root, member of the mustard family, cousin to the cauliflower, domesticated for consumption in some misty epoch in Central and Eastern Europe, is grown today in substantial quantities in places like Wisconsin, Missouri and, most prodigiously, the region around Collinsville, Illinois, source of 60% of the nation's supply. Heartburn Ted's roots are pure Show Me State. They go to the unidentified bottler in Joliet (Ted began working with this manufacturer after the Bohemian's death, in the early 1970s) and are processed according to the King's, nee Slowik's, specifications. Post-production, those specifications include no labels, the absence of which allows Heartburn Ted to "maintain the flavor of a homemade product. If it's got a label it ain't a homemade product no more, is it?" In a nod to modernity, however, on the cap of each jar the bottler inks an expiration date.
Heartburn Ted's ingredients total four. The root, 100-grade white vinegar, "and," Ted says, "I have to use one half of one percent of Benzoate soda. That's a preservative." His tone suggests that if he had his druthers he would use no Benzoate soda. When someone inquires after the fourth and final element, Heartburn Ted says:
"And the secret ingredient!"
This he will not reveal, except to say, "It's made with care, the care in the manufacturing. This is not made with the same crap as Kraft! That's a very mild horseradish. It's got no kick. They just want somethin' that represents horseradish. I wanna knock you on your butt!"
To knock his customers prone, Heartburn Ted offers an alternative version of his staple. It's called Triple X. To fix up a batch he drips into a regular jar of horseradish a few droplets of "pure mustard oil, pure extract of mustard seed," a common method among horseradish producers to increase by an order of magnitude the natural heat of the root. On the middle console in his van's front seat Ted keeps a 20-milliliter eyedropper that says on the label, "Albuterol Sulfate, USP Solution for Inhalation." The sulfate is gone, of course, and the cleaned-out bottle contains a transparent substance, pure extract of mustard seed. When the van rumbles between stops, the liquid jumps in its bottle—nitro glycerin. Ted says, "If they really want it juiced up I'll put in five or six drops. Then it's totally inedible. They just buy it to watch their friends gag. You can't buy this mustard oil just anywhere. It's a weapon! If I put this in your eyeball I got 20 minutes before you know what's goin' on and you realize I'm kickin' your ass! I filled up a denture adhesive bottle with mustard oil once and gave it to my daughter. One day she was walking to her car from work and this guy attacked her. She shot em with it in the face, and he's still runnin'!" When a customer orders the Triple X, Ted leaves the bar and heads to his van. In a somewhat surreptitious procedure, he juices a jar—depending on the eagerness of a person's request for heat, maybe one, maybe two, maybe even six drops—shakes it with vigor, and with a red Sharpie pen scrawls three x's onto the cap.
American Legion Post, Pulaski Avenue. A white-haired fellow of early middle age, wrap-around sunglasses propped on his head, takes up a common complaint. "I've been goin' all over the world lookin' for a hot horseradish," he says. "No one makes it hot enough any more." Someone places onto the bar top a jar, x's marked like blood on the lid. From out of town, a hickabilly, this man has never heard of Heartburn Ted. His friends, all regulars, all Heartburn Ted clients, attempt to warn him. He is blasé, skeptical, unheeding. He unscrews the cap, lowers his nose—the room collectively winces—and draws in a lungful. He jerks his head away as if snapped at by snakes. "Whoa!" Laughter overcomes the Post.
Sitting at the bar inside Dave's Happy Hour, a man, pot-bellied, mustachioed, orders a bottle of big heat. His friend says with something like fear in his voice, "I told you to get the regular, man. The Triple X is a killer."
"I know, I know. I can handle it, I can handle it!" says Ed, defiant. "It's my nose," he goes on, glancing at the horseradish and then at his shot glass, "and it's my liver!"
Heartburn Ted intervenes. "I'm gonna do something for you," he tells Ed. "I'm gonna change the color of your mustache."
"From blond to what?"
Ed's friend—all flat a's, all dropped tee-aitches, a lampoon of Chicago dialect—says, "Most of us are Lithuanians or Germans in here, so we love dis stuff. If you gotta head cold, the Triple X is what yer supposed to have around de house. You shake it up, take a good bret up yer nose and put a little on yer tongue. It'll clear yer sinuses right up. It's a natural curative. Always been dat way. If you trace de history of horseradish it's a rut for medicine."
Heartburn Ted cannot resist comment. "Sure it'll clean your sinuses out," he says. "From both ends!"
A large man with white hair and a white mustache rotates on his stool at a no-name bar, 83rd and Pulaski. Everyone inside the saloon, save a little old lady ordering from Ted a pound of sausage, is male, is hefty. But like the little old lady, all are buying stuff, most of it pre-ordered during Ted's visit the previous week. The man's name is Rich, a plumber, of Polish and "Scotch" extraction. He buys from Heartburn Ted as much for convenience as for the quality of the product. "It's a pain in the ass going to Bobak's," he says, referring to the popular Polish deli, on Archer near Midway. "You go in there it's too goddam crowded! You gotta wait in line a hour and a half before you get the service. I'm comin' home from work and all I can do is smell beer. I just assume sit here, have my beer, wait for him and get my Polish, get my horseradish. Plus, I can get smashed." Rich speaks of Ted's foodstuffs with seriousness, as if discussing the proper method for snaking a toilet. He is smoking a Newport. On the bar in front of him sits a shot of brown liquor, a bottle of beer—along with the horseradish, his medicine.
Southport and Byron, at a bar called Toon's, a stop on Ted's Monday northside route, and Annie Muller, born in the Bronx, patisserie chef at the Bulldog Bakery, trained by the C.I.A., Hyde Park, New York, and for four years a dedicated customer of the King, dips a swizzle stick into a jar of Heartburn Ted, standard version. She touches a nip to her palate. It's warm, she says, but not overpoweringly so—a balance has been struck. "The difference is that Ted's horseradish contains all the natural pulp. The only liquid in here is from the root itself." Horseradish made in large batches by industrial manufacturers contains mostly horseradish meat, which produces the sharp, hot flavor everyone knows. "But," says Muller, "the juice of the root along with the fibrous part balances out the taste. With the big processing, the milk gets washed away and they have to add water later. Also, this is a lot finer ground than the stuff in the store. He must have a special machine that grinds the root. It's just a better texture." She presses the handle of the swizzle stick's sword down on the surface of the horseradish. Liquid rises, heartburn milk.
Can she detect anything in the stuff that might express Ted's secret ingredient?
Is there a secret ingredient?
She pauses for a while, considering. "Love," she says.
At the Plaza Pub, on 68th and Lithuanian Plaza, where when a customer buzzes the doorbell, the barkeep must buzz him in, a Heartburn Ted devotee offers a paraphrase of Annie Muller's analysis: "That stuff that you buy at the goddam store, that's shit horseradish!"
It is possible in Chicago to buy horseradish, otherwise than shit, at stores and other places that do not involve Heartburn Ted. At Bobak's, for instance, a few meters of cooled shelving are dedicated entirely to horseradish. Most of it comes from Poland, an importation, chrzan in the mother tongue, including jars with the name Bobak's on the label, shipped from a factory in Lowicz, 100 kilometers south-southwest of Warsaw, Firma Bracia Urbanek, ul. Katarzynow 59. There's stuff, as well, from Canada, from Newark, from Belleview, Florida. "It is cheaper to import from Poland than to make here," says Ingrid, a Slovakian émigré and a manager at Bobak's. "For example this"—she picks up a 4.22-milliliter jar of a brand called Krakus, exported by Argus of Warsaw—"is $1.39 price, but cost maybe 59 cent from Poland. That is why it is better to buy from Poland."
On the street, outside the stores, far from the Polish hinterlands, a rival to Heartburn Ted also stakes a claim to the local horseradish throne. Fifty years old, a Vietnam vet, he distributes his product from the back of a two-ton refrigerated truck emblazoned with the company logo, an anthropomorphic sausage smiling in delight on one side of the box, and yelping in hurt as he gets cooked on the other, "the pleasure and the pain," Ted's rival says, "the ying and the yang." His name is Joe Perl, aka G.I. Joe, profiled in these pages in March 2001. With his brother Barron, aka Bubba, Joe Perl sells (bar-to-bar and at their shop in Wheeling) an enormous selection of meat products—sausages, salamis, bolognas, braunschweigers, beefs, hams, jerkies—his primary trade. But along with his meats his inventory includes horseradish and horseradish-based hot mustards and horseradish cheeses (both spread and block) and horseradish barbecue sauce and horseradish pickles and, by special order only, a bratwurst infused with horseradish.
Heartburn Ted dismisses the Perls with a burst of language. "They sell a two-ounce jar for something like five bucks, but you can't even stick your nose near that jar! What they got is lethal. It's nothin' but sawdust loaded with mustard oil. And anyway they sell meat, basically. They're meat salesman!"
In 1948, G.I. Joe's father, Carl Perl, a Rumanian sausage maker and the son of a sausage maker, smuggled the family recipes and the family "know-how," for horseradish included, into the United States by way of Germany. "Our recipes are so unique you almost won't find it anywhere else. And definitely not in the stores," says G.I. Joe, echoing his competition. Perl strives to use roots that will impart both flavor and spiciness—"a balancing act," he says—and over the years the original Perl formulation has expanded into a line of five models, rising progressively in heat from the basics (Super Horseradish and Super Hot Horseradish, both 16 oz. jars, both $5 apiece) to the mid-level (Rocket Horseradish, 8 oz., $5) to the high-end (Royal Bohemian Horseradish and Nuclear Horseradish or, as Joe Perl has sub-titled it, "Liquid Nitro," both 4 oz., $6 apiece). This last, the Nuclear, is packaged in a miniature pinewood coffin with a skull and crossbones printed on its side. Perl describes his horseradish in terms—"extreme," "thrill," "rush"—that bring to mind less a purveyor of sausage than an outfitter of bungee jumps. Both the Royal Bohemian and Liquid Nitro owe their costliness to a rare and dangerous breed of root—termed Royal Bohemian—grown only in Canada and northern Wisconsin, where for eight to 12 years it lies buried, "fermenting," Perl says.
Not surprisingly, Joe Perl disputes Heartburn Ted's self-coronated status. Perl moves about 60 cases of horseradish a month, he says, compared with Ted's 40, although much of Perl's volume occurs outside the metropolitan area, in suburban Detroit, in central Indiana, in southern Wisconsin. Perl says of Heartburn Ted, "He's been around awhile, but not as long as us—not even half as long. I don't think he carries stuff as intense as we do. Not nearly as intense! He's a small operator but a steady operator. He just does it as a common courtesy as an old man, and he tries to give people a good product, and I don't blame him. He's not like us, though. He's not driven and he's not ambitious like we are, and he doesn't have the tenacity, the intensity that we have. Because we're a bunch of nuts! I don't think he's as funny and wacky as us. No way. We're the cham-peens!"
The Heartburn-G.I. Joe rivalry exists for the most part only on an aesthetical plane. Rarely do the contenders' markets overlap. When they do, it occurs on the southside, including at Crowbar and Simpson's, both of which have cast their votes in favor of Heartburn Ted, since neither serves G.I. Joe condiments on their respective corned-beef sandwiches.
Over the door of a tucked-away bar down Chase Street, close to Sheridan, nearby the Lake, hangs a red awning stenciled with the likeness of a lighthouse. Like an eighteenth-century English inn, the sign has no words. From inside the Lighthouse, as Ted parks his car, someone can be heard yelling, "Hey! It's the horseradish guy!" A man summons the King to a corner of the crowded bar. He wears a green polo shirt tight over an ample stomach. Jowly in the face, he looks vaguely like George Steinbrenner. He identifies himself as Davie K. He has something on his mind, which could be a little tightened by Old Style. He asks Heartburn Ted, "Who was that lady I bought horseradish from years ago?"
"My competition!" Ted says. "But she was also my friend."
"She drove a big new Buick I think."
"No, it was a Cadillac."
"Is that right? She said she grew her own horseradish."
Heartburn Ted shakes his head at the man's apparent naïvete. "Noo!"
Davie K. slaps the bar and shoots Ted a flabbergasted look, as if he had crushed some fiercely held belief. "Everything's a lie these days!"
"Well, I got a horseradish mine. How about that one?"
"How long you been selling?"
"And you work five days a week?"
"Sure I do. I been married 48 years and that's what keeps me married. I gotta stay away from her!"
"I used to be a horseradish salesman myself," Davie K. says to the patrons beside him, "till he beat me outta there! No, really. I used to be a bread distributor, and I'll tell you what. I know good horseradish." He points his thumb toward Ted. "And maybe someday he'll make some!"
For many years, from when he started in the trade in the late 1960s and up until around 1991, Heartburn Ted's fiercest competition came from a woman, born somewhere in the former Yugoslavia, who seemed to him perpetually old. Ted cannot any longer recall her name. The market for her homemade product also existed inside bars, but she and Ted worked out a non-compete agreement. "She used to call me and say, 'Where you going today?' And if I said, 'Northside,' she'd say, 'Good, I'll go south.' But her competition didn't matter to me! She had her customers, I had mine. She didn't bother me at all." The woman, according to Ted, had a powerful work ethic. Her route began at 7AM and didn't end until nearly midnight. "She was a hustler, boy, that old lady. Whatever she took out with her she wanted to sell that day. I'd see her walkin' into the bar, ten at night! And when I saw her I'd buy a jar!"
How did it taste?
"Nowhere near what I'm sellin'!"
But the Chicago Horseradish Queen's business was good enough to allow her drive around in late-model Cadillacs, Ted says, "and not a beat up car like mine." With her horseradish profits, she put her children through college. She worked all the way until the day she died, in her 80s. "She was a legend," Ted says. "She'd been around forever, too." By "too," of course, he means in addition to himself. Neither does Heartburn Ted have any plans for retirement. "What would I be doing if I was retired?" he says. "I'd be lyin' on my back around all day. Selling the horseradish it keeps me alive. And it keeps me outta the bars!"