Laurel and Hardy, Ruth and Gehrig, Maurice and Auguste...um...Maurice and whozits?
Yes, Maurice Grey and Auguste Poupon belong in the pantheon of fabled pairings. No, they didn’t invent mustard. But the Dijon-style mustard company spawned catch-phrases—”Pardon me, do you have any Grey Poupon?”—and flaunts all kinds of cred.
Kanye West quoted the famous commercial line in a song. Ghostface Killah mentioned the mustard, too. As did Big Sean, Kendrick Lamar and other hip-hop artists. Would anyone dare to dispute Big L’s discourse on the matter? “Front, get your belly torn/I keep a Pelle on/I’m fucking with Grey Poupon and Dom Pérignon” pretty much sums things up.
The arrival of Dijon mustard in American popular culture also knocked common yellow mustard from aspirational restaurants. Take that, R.T. French.
But hang on a moment. French’s still owns a third of the U.S. market for mustard, valued at close to $450 million. Grey Poupon’s share is just 15 percent—paltry by comparison. And at Cannery Row Delicatessen in Monterey, yellow mustard goes on most sandwiches.
“We have Dijon and honey mustard on request,” explains the deli’s Jessica Nanzanarez.
Clearly Americans still love that glowing neon stuff. Why don’t chefs?
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with yellow mustard,” says Travis Childers of The Cork & Plough in King City. “Most restaurants want to stand out. Chefs want to avoid what people make at home.”
And so you are more likely to find spicy brown, stone ground mustards stirred with dark beers, with artisanal honey, with rye whiskey—probably even Dom Pérignon—filling ramekins that come with house-made tater tots or drizzled over Kobe hot dogs.
“You see it more and more—it’s what people grew up with,” adds chef Tim Wood of Carmel Valley Ranch referring to American mustard.
Wood points out that he’d prefer to keep it out of his kitchen and his told his wife never to buy it for home use. Yet customers will request it, and the family does keep a bottle at home.
But he grew up with Dijon and German mustards, so he likes to start there—simple, not overburdened by artisanal additions. Woods’ likes ingredients and technique to stand out.
Chefs appreciate mustard for this versatility. Because it’s so simple—seeds ground or left largely intact, mixed with liquid—mustard serves as a kind of palette. There are the pale, mild-tempered seeds that go into the yellow American version. Or there are the more fiery brown or black seeds. From here, science gets involved. The folks in lab coats say that earthy, sometimes piquant burst evolved in the mustard plant as a defense against...well, plant predators—which presumably includes us, so the array of enzymes the seeds wield clearly aren’t up to the task.
Anyway, bringing different acidity levels into play through the addition of wine, say, or vinegar is a way to sway heat levels one way or another. Those who prepare mustard can tamper with when it bares fangs, how deep the bite goes, how long it clings and so on.
That’s why Childers insists chefs aren’t anti-yellow, per se.
“I tend to go regionally,” he explains. “If I’m doing a French dish I use Dijon, a creole dish I use spicy brown.”
But he’s been known to rub a rack of lamb in plain yellow mustard and bread crumbs.
“We have a Cuban sandwich and with the Cuban sandwich, yellow mustard is traditional,” Childers adds. “I could try to be fancy, but I like to maintain respect for tradition.”
Some scholars trace mustard to the great condimentoriums of ancient Rome. Others to the golden age of Greece, where Olympic athletes would seek favor by offering clay jars of mustard seeds ground with grape must (the leftovers of wine) to the oracles…
OK, OK. There were no condimentoriums, no pandering to the deities—at least as far as I’m aware. But ancient cultures as far back as the Mesopotamian Empire worked with mustard seeds. It is said that Pythagoras slathered himself with mustard to heal scorpion stings, although someone of his reputation for wisdom might have thought to stay out of the brush.
Mental Floss’ Roma Panganiban credits the Romans for spilling mustard seeds all over Burgundy as they whipped up on the Gauls. According to Jeffrey C. Nekola, a researcher and Professor of Ecology at Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic, Burgundy was associated with quality mustard by the 13th century.
Hey, he collaborated on the epic A Modern Analogue of the Pleistocene steppe-tundra ecosystem in southern Siberia and the thriller A consideration from the Holarctic micro-landsnail genus (Brad Pitt starred in the movie adaptation), so he should know his condiments.
Popes and royalty hired official mustard purveyors. Queen Victoria, for instance, selected Jeremiah Colman of Colman’s Mustard fame. Regional mustards began to gain a following in Germany, where producers tend to go wild, adding applesauce or horseradish into the mix. Some credit residents of the Midwest for stirring beer into mustard.
Of course, none of this really applies to yellow mustard because it was pretty much unknown until Robert T. French brought it to the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. As it happens, a hot dog vendor at the same fair named Anton Feuchtwanger thought to introduce the hot dog bun, and the rest is hist…
Hang on. If hot dogs and sausages were already popular, how were people consuming them? Knife and fork? Well, one story had a street vendor—some say Feuchtwanger again (but they probably don’t say it three times, fast)—handed out gloves to his customers, who scampered off with them, thus predating Michael Jackson’s 1980s fashion statement by many decades.
But Dr. Bruce Kraig, the nation’s preeminent hot dog scholar, debunks all of this, except for the bit about French and the World’s Fair. He points out that Germans traditionally had bread with sausages, so the invention of a hot dog bun probably fell to German immigrants adapting to American ways.
Boring. No wonder most university hot dog research departments have folded. Wonder how the National Mustard Museum stays afloat?
Yes, there is a mustard-related tourist attraction. It’s in Middleton, Wisconsin. It was founded by Barry Levenson, who quit his post as Wisconsin’s Assistant Attorney General to share the amazing story of mustard. And according to the museum website, he did so after the Boston Red Sox’s loss to the Cincinnati Reds in the 1976 World Series caused him to search for the meaning of life in the aisles of an all-night grocery store.
Let’s see professor Kraig poke holes in that one.
Anyway, French’s yellow mustard became so popular that it is known as the American style. Statista pegs the company’s consumer base as 150 million people, compared to 31 million for Grey Poupon (now made in New York state, I’m told).
“People think of the ballpark, a hot dog, that soft bun and that stupid mustard,” Wood says.
Except for Heinz, the other brand names—including artisanal mustards—lag well behind.
So there’s nothing against American yellow mustard, really. There are just more options and chefs like to showcase different flavors—and maybe get a little greedy flaunting trendy additions (there’s bound to be a quinoa mustard out there somewhere).
Oh—one more thing.
“People look at it and think it’s artificial,” Childers says of yellow mustard. “But the only coloring in it is turmeric. Someone years ago thought of adding a crap-ton of turmeric so kids would try it. He deserves a medal.”
Take that R.T. French.