Mustard may have truly come alive for Americans in the early 20th century when it was introduced to the hot dog, but its history is even longer and spicier than you might have guessed. In honor of National Mustard Day (August 3), here are some facts about the popular condiment.
1. FIRST THINGS FIRST: MUSTARD IS A PLANT; PREPARED MUSTARD IS A CONDIMENT.
Although it’s rarely necessary to specify “prepared” mustard when referring to the spicy spread, it only seems fair to acknowledge mustard’s true roots.
2. BROCCOLI IS MUSTARD’S NOT-SO-DISTANT COUSIN.
As members of Brassica or Sinapis genera, mustard plants are close relatives to a surprising variety of common vegetables, including broccoli, cauliflower, turnips, and cabbage.
3. MUSTARD GOES WAY, WAY BACK.
By some accounts, mustard was the first condiment humans ever put on their food. Egyptian pharaohs stocked their tombs with mustard seeds to accompany them into the afterlife, but the Romans were the first to grind the spicy seeds into a spreadable paste and mix them with a flavorful liquid—usually, wine or vinegar. French monks, who mixed the ground seeds with “must,” or unfermented wine, inspired the word “mustard,” which stems from the Latin mustum ardens (roughly meaning “burning wine.”)
4. THE ANCIENT GREEKS AND ROMANS USED MUSTARD AS MORE THAN JUST A CONDIMENT.
Pythagoras endorsed a poultice of mustard seeds as a cure for scorpion stings. Hippocrates praised mustard paste as a miracle remedy capable of soothing pains and aches; and ancient Roman physicians used it to ease toothaches. They weren’t alone. Over the years, mustard has been used for appetite stimulation, sinus clearing, and frostbite prevention. It’s now touted as a weight loss supplement, asthma suppressant, hair growth stimulant, immunity booster, cholesterol regulator, dermatitis treatment, and even as an effective method of warding off gastrointestinal cancer, so ask your doctor if mustard is right for you.
5. MOST OF TODAY’S DIJON MUSTARD ISN’T FROM DIJON.
When the Romans conquered the Gauls, they brought mustard seeds with them, and these seeds took root in the fertile soil of France’s Burgundy region. By the thirteenth century, Dijon had emerged as a hub of mustard production, which laid the foundation for the invention of the region’s signature “Dijon mustard” in 1856. A simple ingredient swap added a new tang to old mustard recipes when Jean Naigeon thought to use verjuice, the acidic juice of unripe grapes, instead of the traditional vinegar—a change so easy to replicate that the recipe couldn’t be contained to a single city. Today, Dijon mustard can be made anywhere in the world.
6. KING LOUIS XI DIDN’T TRAVEL WITHOUT MUSTARD.
The French monarch considered the condiment so essential to his culinary experiences that he kept a pot with him at all times, so as not to be disappointed if he were to be served a meal in a household that wasn’t fully stocked.
7. MUSTARD HAS MANY, MANY FACES.
Dijon isn’t the only place with a favorite local mustard. Other common regional mustard varieties include American (the familiar yellow squeeze-bottle stuff), English, so-called “French mustard” (actually invented in England as a less-spicy alternative to English mustard), Bavarian sweet mustard, Italian fruit mustards, Midwestern beer mustard, Creole mustard, and so many wildly different German mustards that the phrase “German mustard” is essentially meaningless.
8. THE FAMOUS GREY POUPON AD TURNED THE MUSTARD MARKET ON ITS HEAD.
The upscale mustard brand’s iconic 1984 Rolls-Royce TV commercial sparked a boom in sales for Grey Poupon, which had been lagging far behind the reigning American favorite, French’s “Classic Yellow” mustard. By marketing the more expensive spread as one of “the finer things in life” that even an average shopper could afford, Grey Poupon broke buyers’ previously unquestioned devotion to a plainer sort of condiment. Moreover, many test audiences only needed one taste of Grey Poupon to immediately switch their allegiance.
9. IT’S SAID TO BE AMERICA’S SILVER-MEDAL SPICE.
Peppercorns are the most used spice in the United States; mustard comes in second.
10. TWO COUNTRIES (CANADA AND NEPAL) ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MOST OF THE WORLD’S MUSTARD.
In addition to their main ingredient, most mustards have one thing in common: the ingredients’ country of origin. Together, Canada and Nepal’s crops account for more than half of global mustard production. Thanks, guys!
11. “MUSTARD YELLOW” IS A LIE!
The particular shade of yellow to which mustard lends its name owes its hue not to mustard seeds themselves, but to the vibrantly colored turmeric added for an extra kick of spice and brightness. Crushed mustard seeds alone vary from a pale yellow to a dark brown depending on their variety, but “turmeric yellow” doesn’t sound quite as good.
12. MIDDLETON, WISCONSIN IS FOR MUSTARD LOVERS.
Can any foodstuff call itself beloved if there’s not a museum established in its honor? Southern Wisconsin is proud to call itself the home of the National Mustard Museum, which boasts “more than 5566 jars, bottles, and tubes from all 50 states and more than 70 countries.”
13. THAT JAR OF MUSTARD IN THE BACK OF THE FRIDGE IS PROBABLY FINE.
Despite its creamy texture, mustard is fundamentally nothing more than a blend of spices and acidic liquid, none of which have the potential to truly spoil. Refrigeration is advised to keep mustard’s spicy kick from dissipating too quickly, but it isn’t strictly necessary. The mustard’s flavor will decline over time, but unless rogue food particles have gotten into the container, there’s nothing to worry about—except mediocre mustard, of course.
BY ROMA PANGANIBAN