Cutting The Mustard

Eating Over The Sink

As far as I know, July is not National Mustard Month, but it should be. Weenie bar-b-ques, 4th of July, hot weather, hammocks, company picnics and other great fun-activities are on everyone’s mind, and on everyone’s calendar. But, what’s a cookout without mustard? So, to help add to your picnic enjoyment, not to mention your bright outdoor conversations, Uncle Zack will now relate more than you ever wanted to know about mustard.

Since mustard comes from an actual plant, it has been around all along. Like since the beginning, whenever that was. But it is probably enough for us to know that the ancient Greeks and Romans liked the stuff. They called it ‘sinapis,’ both the mustard grain seeds and powder made from those seeds, and they put it in stews and on roasts.

The French city Dijon was known as Divio by the Romans. And that is where they kept the original recipe for mustard, in safekeeping. Fortunately, Divio became Dijon before we had to borrow it from old men in Rolls Royces, elsewise we’d have to say “Pardon me, can you spare some Divio?” That wouldn’t do at all.

In the 13th century one Etienne Boileau, the Provost of Paris under King Louis (later known as Saint Louis, but not because of mustard, as far as we know), decided to include the local vinegar-makers in his plan for the regulation of Guilds and Corporations. In a grand, if not sweeping, gesture, he granted them the exclusive right to make mustard.

During that period, there were sauce-vendors known in French as sauciers (saucy-ehs) who carried sauces around town, like pizza delivery trucks. During dinner hours, they would run through the streets of Paris crying out ‘Mustard Sauce,’ or ‘Garlic Sauce,’ or ‘Onion Sauce,’ or maybe ‘Verjuice Sauce.’ Ok, so you want to know what verjuice is. I’ll tell you. Verjuice is the juice pressed from grapes before they are ripe.

Anyhow, anyone who was disinclined to eat his meat without sauce would summon a vendor, who would come to the diner’s door or window and serve him immediately. But, for those who didn’t want home delivery, they would send their children out in the morning or the afternoon to by a penny’s worth of mustard from a local apothecary. This worked so well that it became a cultural item. If one asked What time it is?, and if it were around 9:00 am or 6:00 pm, the reply would not mention the hour. Instead the answer would be ‘it’s the time for children to be fetching the mustard.’ Now, that makes perfect sense to me.

All these foodie things started in France, don’t you know. The first cookery book to appear in France was called Le Viandier (luh vee-and-dee-eh), which essentially means ‘the meat provider.’ It was written by the famous-in-those-circles Monsieur Taillevent, who was the chief chef of King Charles VII. Among other tidbits, the cookbook contained a long description of the King and his friends being served a great meal of chicken with mustard sauce in a small town. Since the King didn’t have a cook in his traveling party, the wife of a local tradesman did the cooking, and the King raved about the manner of preparation for months! Today, we would call the dish fried chicken with a little mustard sauce, but King was mesmerized.

Louis XI, also of France, loved to make his hosts uncomfortable by inviting himself to their homes for supper on very short notice, but he always carried his own pot of mustard along with him. His mustard came from a specialty shop in Dijon, and reportedly was costing him $20 pounds per pot in 1477.

Pope John XXII was very fond of mustard, and reportedly put it into everything he ate. Although it should, fondness for mustard doesn’t free you from family problems. Pope John had a good-for-nothing nephew, and since he was Pope and all, he was expected to provide the young man with some sort of livelihood. So, he appointed his nephew to be his premier moutardier (head mustard provider). Now here is where you need to take notes so as to provide brilliant anecdotes at your next party. This is the source of the phrase, speaking of saying of a conceited fool, that ‘he thinks himself the Pope’s head mustardier.’ If you haven’t heard that phrase, I forgive you.

Things went along quite splendidly for mustard until adventurers started bringing spices from the West Indies. Then as now, people bored easily, and they wanted all these new flavors, instead of the tried-and-true mustard. In Dijon, they thought they could save mustard by assuring the public that it was produced in better ways than the spices were, and therefore was more healthy. In 1634 additional laws were passed which gave the mustard-makers and the vinegar-makers the sole right to make mustard in Dijon.

But, this didn’t help much. In 1742 one vinegar-maker started using white vinegar instead of red vinegar. That did seem to help a little. Then some bright young fellow began making flavored mustards. Flavored with verjuice, capers, and anchovy.

This led to the greatest idea! A vinegar-maker called Maille began making mustard especially for use by women, and others for men. Like deodorants. Everyone knows that a lady’s palate is so much more delicate than a man’s, and can’t tolerate the too strong and too pungent mustard made for men. Then he started making mustards guaranteed to improve health, mustard with very smooth texture, mustard with herbs, and with champagne. He eventually had at least 92 varieties, including red mustard, mustard with tarragon, with nasturtium flavoring, with lemon, and mustard with truffles.

Although there weren’t any astrological connections, mustard did have its share of weirdness. Consider Monsieur Maout. Maout believed he was predestined to make mustard because his name included the first 5 letters of the word moutarde (French for mustard). He didn’t seem to bother concerning himself with the order of the letters. Impressed as he was, he went off to Paris, where he became somewhat less than famous.

By the mid 1800s, mustard was being sold in England in something known as “bricks.” We get it in jars and those horrible squeeze bottles. And somewhere along the line, someone decided to add turmeric to make it all yellow. No accounting for taste, said the old lady as she kissed the cow.


ZACK GRADY puts dark mustard on his pastrami and corned beef in Southern California.

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Eating Over The Sink

ZACK GRADY writes from Southern California. He reads cookbooks, but mostly, he just adds garlic and hot sauce.

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