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mustard

2 february 2020

When I was a kid, there was ketchup, and there was mustard. I liked ketchup, of course. Ketchup is sweet, and though we didn't know the term then, full of umami. Mustard was pungent and acidic. It was also garishly yellow. My mother liked mustard, and she and I famously did not like to eat the same things.

Maybe lots of American childhoods have been the same. Mustard has something adult about it, something medicinal, something refined. Demet Güzey covers all these attributes and more in her global history Mustard.

Social class is at the heart of much of Güzey's analysis. In ancient and pre-1492 societies, particularly in Europe where prestige spices were imported from very far away at very high cost, mustard was the single flavoring that packed a wallop yet grew like a weed. (Since transatlantic contact, mustard's unique role has been increasingly ceded to chili peppers.)

People use mustard efficiently. A Brassica like cabbage and its allies, mustard provides nutritious leaves, and then does double duty as a flavoring via its seeds. Güzey is mostly interested in the seeds, of course, and preparations made from them; mustard greens are used more generically.

Mustard is processed into pastes, powders, and ball shapes; it is also pressed for oil. (Güzey says that mustard oil is banned in the United States [107], but that can't be quite accurate; I've seen it in stores, and a quick check reveals that I can buy a liter of mustard oil on the Internet for $11.99.)

The distinctiveness of different mustard traditions, within the global mustard continuum, is intriguing. Americans perfected the bright yellow, acidic stuff that we put on ballpark hot dogs. The yellow comes from turmeric, not from the mustard itself. In turn this gives brown mustards a more natural feel, though that's something of an illusion. English mustard is also quite yellow, but comes as a powder that you're supposed to mix as needed. Americans don't like to slow down to mix stuff.

French mustard, now made mostly with imported seeds from Canada, has a winey substrate. German mustard is sweet – at least the kind you put on Weißwurst in Bavaria is sweet, thanks to brown sugar. Japanese mustards tend toward the horseradish or wasabi side of the spectrum (the three plants are distantly related, all being Brassicaceae).

Maybe the best mustard I've ever had is endemic to the baseball park in Cleveland, Ohio. This special mustard, made by Bertman's, is slightly sweet, tending toward Bavarian style, though it's still recognizably an American sharp mustard.

But really, there are so many mustards that tastes are unlikely to overlap. The navel of the mustard-variety universe is the National Mustard Museum in Middleton, Wisconsin. I went to the Museum when it was in nearby Mount Horeb, about 15 years ago. There are more mustards there than you can live to taste. Evidently the collection began when a Red Sox fan named Barry Levenson needed to console himself after the Sox lost the 1986 World Series. Consolation took a lot of condiment. This was not a loss you could assuage with a couple of bottles of Grey Poupon. The museum now holds more than 5,000 varieties.

Güzey's "Mustard in Language and Literature" is a short chapter. I can't think of any mustard poetry; Güzey notes that a character in A Midsummer Night's Dream is called Mustardseed, but that's about the pinnacle of literary mustardness. Though there's also Matthew 17:20: "If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove." Jesus realized that as a mountain is to a molehill, a molehill is to a mustardseed.

And mustard is also medicinal. Of course a lot of plants are medicinal, and a lot of those are mere placebos. Mustard is odd in that it is probably mostly a placebo, but it stayed in the pharmacopœia a lot longer than other folk remedies. I'm sixty now, just old enough to remember when mustard plasters were at least potential cold remedies. Nobody ever gave me one, and I'm grateful for that. I don't think mustard has any truly active ingredients. It operates by clearing your sinuses, but there are probably more pleasant and effective ways to do that.

Güzey includes some recipes, including ones for mustard bread, soup, and ice cream. I'll pass. Some of her old-timey finds are curious, though, like "Mustard that Can Be Carried in Pieces on Horseback" (115). The source for this odd concoction suggests that once the pieces of mustard are prepared, "you can take them from place to place, as you wish." I suppose it's as good an activity as any.

Güzey, Demet. Mustard. London: Reaktion, 2019.

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