What is it about mustard?
I go to a lot of diners and small restaurants, too many to count at this point, and I’ve noticed something that always intrigues me. You can always expect to find a salt and pepper-shaker on your table, along with packets of sugar. I don’t use salt or sugar, so I don’t pay much attention to them, although I’m always quite happy to see pepper readily available. I love dousing just about anything the waitress shoves in front of me with thick amounts of pepper.
You can also find the requisite bottle of ketchup on your table. I do use ketchup, on burgers, French Fries, steaks, and so on. I often wish there were other things readily available that I like to use, such as vinegar. I love pouring vinegar on everything from salads to French Fries. Steak & Shake always has vinegar on the tables, which is probably why I go there so often.
But the one thing that really puzzles me is …. mustard.
I happen to like mustard more than ketchup, even though I was raised to understand that it was an American tradition – I mean, it was quite literally expected of you – to lift your hamburger bun and pour the ketchup on, and to toss a little on the side for your fries. That’s how my mom raised me, and I have no quarrels with that.
But somewhere along the line, I discovered mustard, and found I liked it even better. French Fries dipped in mustard, to me, far exceeds the sublime pleasure of fries in ketchup. I feel the same way about applying mustard to fish, meats, chicken, etc.
But why do restaurants always have ketchup on the table, but you often have to ask for mustard? Why is it every diner has ketchup bottles, but sometimes they don’t have mustard at all?
It boggles the mind.
Now, I assume this is just customer preference – diners get far more ketchup requests than they do mustard inquiries when the burgers are flying off the grill. Fine. That’s just like my mom taught me when I was a kid – ketchup and burgers/fries go together like Florida sunshine and tourists. You can’t argue with success.
But as I was sitting in a small diner in Haines City recently, glancing at the bottles of both ketchup and mustard available for me to use, some thoughts crossed my mind.
Why is it that ketchup is always the same – just plain old red ketchup – while mustard has a great deal more variety? You don’t really get mild or spicy or red-hot ketchup, but you can get a wide variety of mustards.
A lot of the diners I’ve frequented have regular yellow mustard, like French’s Classic Yellow Mustard. But some have honey mustard, others prefer spicy, a few like Dijon.
They certainly have plenty of options for stocking their shelves. There’s a Jack Daniels Honey Dijon mustard, and the classic Grey Poupon Dijon Mustard – mild and creamy, the bottle points out. Emeril Lagasse has Emeril’s Dijon Mustard, and there’s a Fallot Whole Grain Mustard. Sometimes mustard is mixed with horseradish, for those who like it extra hot (like me).
In fact, if you’re shopping for mustard, the choices can be dizzying. You can buy it organic or Vegan (Annie’s Organic Yellow Mustard), Kosher (O Organics Yellow Mustard), Vegetarian (Coleman’s English Wet Mustard) or Gluten-free. There are brands that are Asian, European and North America. If you decide to order this stuff online, you can get Pommery green peppercorn mustard for $13.50, Irish Mustards (with Irish whiskey!) for $6.99, Cranberry Mustard from Wisconsin Cheeseman for $11.99, or if you really want to go all out, six Pommery Mustard Meaux Moutarde in a Pottery Crock for $129.99. Who knew mustard could be so fancy?
In fact, there are more than 4,000 books about mustard listed on Amazon. Com, including such appetizing titles as Marie Nadine Antol’s “The Incredible Secrets of Mustard: The Quintessential Guide to the History, Lore, Varieties, and Benefits” and Helene Sawyer and Cheryl Long’s “Gourmet Mustards: The How-To’s of Making and Cooking With Mustards (Creative Cooking Series).”
Who knew that poor mustard, often ignored by local diners in favor of the more popular cousin ketchup, could have so much going for it? Variety, selection, mild and creamy or sizzling the tongue …. does it get any better than this?
There are numerous movies that have been made with mustard in the title, including “No Bigger Than a Mustard Seed” (1980), “Mustard Bath” (1993), “The Ketchup and Mustard Man” (1994), “Mean Mr. Mustard” (1998), “Mustard Pancakes” (2005), and two shorts from last year, “”Mustard and Guns” and “The Mustard Stain.”
Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, notes that mustard goes way back in world history.
“Romans were probably the first to experiment with the preparation of mustard as a condiment,” the site notes. “They mixed unfermented grape juice, known as ‘must,’ with ground mustard seeds (called sinapis) to make “burning must”, mustum ardens — hence ‘mustard.’ A recipe for mustard appears in Apicius (also called De re coquinaria), the anonymously compiled Roman cookbook from the late 4th or early 5th Century; the recipe calls for a mixture of ground mustard, pepper, caraway, lovage, grilled coriander seeds, dill, celery, thyme, oregano, onion, honey, vinegar, fish stock, and oil, and was intended as a glaze for spit-roasted boar.” Whew! That’s a mouthful!
With such a rich history, I wonder sometimes why I have to beg, borrow, and steal for a decent mustard bottle at so many of the diners I frequent. Am I just a lone mustaphile at your average neighborhood burger joint?
I’d love to hear from others out there what their absolute favorite mustard is – is there a brand I’ve been missing because it’s relatively obscure that is just to die for? And any other theories on why mustard gets the shaft sometimes at greasy spoons?
I still wonder about this.