Who doesn’t love mustard, be it yellow or brown, on a hot dog, a sandwich, or even blended into a casserole, salad dressing or appetizer. We love our condiments, and, second only to ketchup, no one loves mustard more than Americans. It’s practically a national institution (alongside the hot dog). During the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, a small company named French’s introduced their yellow mustard on hotdogs, and the popularity exploded.
There are more than 40 species of mustard plants, with their seeds each offering a slightly different flavor and color to create many varieties of mustards. Add other flavorful ingredients, like cranberries, horseradish, hot peppers or honey, and the condiment aficionado could have a veritable cupboard full of delightful mustards to try.
In the Bible, the mustard seed is used in the book of Matthew as a parable, where Jesus teaches that one need only have the faith of a (lowly) mustard seed to move mountains. For Christians, it has been a symbol of faith since the New Testament.
The actual condiment, in some form, dates back to the early Romans, when it was ground from seeds and mixed with juice into a paste, similar to the prepared mustards we use today. The name is derived from “mustum” (from the Latin meaning “burning must” which was the practice of using the juice of young grapes to form a paste). Mustard as a spice was popular in Europe long before the ancient Asian spice trade, and grape-loving Romans planted it in their vineyards alongside the grapevines. The country of France embraced it when many brothers in French monasteries cultivated, prepared and sold mustard as early as the ninth century and can be traced back to shops in Paris in the 13th century.
Two enterprising Frenchmen by the names of Maurice Grey and Antoine Poupon created one of the most popular mustards in the world, Grey Poupon Dijon, in the 1770’s. They discovered that by adding white wine to their private recipe, a totally different and pleasant flavor emerged. Their original store still exists in the town of Dijon. Who can forget the classic TV commercial where two limousines pull up next to each other, and a very proper and obviously wealthy passenger calls out the window inquiring if the other limo has any Grey Poupon on board.
Across the pond, in 1866, a Brit named Jeremiah Colman, founder of the recognizable brand of Colman’s Mustard of England, was appointed as the official mustard maker to Queen Victoria. Colman pioneered the same grinding technique used today, which pulverizes seeds into a fine powder in a way that protects the escape of the flavorful oils. In many British pubs, a crock of spicy mustard can be seen on each table, which, when placing a small amount on one’s tongue, is purported to create a thirst prior to ordering one’s favorite ale or beer.
Even Pope John XII was such a fan of mustard that, like Queen Victoria, he appointed a young man as the Grand Mustard Maker to the Pope. It just happened to be the Pope’s nephew, who was a resident of the Dijon region in France.
Like so many other words in the English language, mustard has other unrelated meanings, such as “cutting the mustard” or “mustard gas,” a lethal weapon during WWI and WWII. In Ireland, referring to someone as “mustard” can mean ill-tempered.
Regardless of your preferences (make mine Grey Poupon, please) there are hundreds of mustards to choose from. If you just can’t get enough, you can visit the National Mustard Museum in Middleton, Wisconsin, where more than 5,500 mustards are on display, and you can sample many of them at the tasting bar. And of course there are hundreds of beloved mustards on sale, so you won’t leave empty-handed.