In Praise of Mustard
First of all, to all you music lovers, Happy National Mustard Day!!! (Yep, it’s a thing!)
I’m sure you must be marveling at the cleverness of us folks here at the Albany Symphony, unveiling our dazzling new Dogs of Desire commissioning series, “Hot,w/Mustard,” on the VERY WEEKEND of that most beloved of all American national holidays, “National Mustard Day,” rivaled only by “World Bratwurst Day” on August 16. (No, I am NOT making these up!) Yes, we are clever! (Actually, we only heard about “National Mustard Day” three days ago.) So…it seems only fitting that I say a few inspirational words about our most glorious and historic condiment in honor of our new series.
Mustard goes way back. I don’t just mean a little way back, like “pre-Hamilton, the Musical” way back….I mean WAAAY back. It is mentioned in Sanskrit manuscripts earlier than 3000 B.C. The ancient Egyptians used it on their hamburgers, the Romans spread it on people’s bodies (hey, for medicinal, not kinky or cannibalistic, reasons). Its etymology is derived from two Latin words: “mustum” (young, not-yet-fermented grape juice or “must”) and “ardens” (hot, flaming). It shows up as a culinary term in English in the early 13th century, though it shows up even earlier as a surname. (“Mister Mustard, such a mean old man…”) Unlike a lot of your fancier spices, the mustard plant is ubiquitous. There are more than forty species of mustard plant, but only three are used to make mustard: white/yellow mustard, Sinapis alba; brown mustard, Brassica juncea; and black mustard, Brassica nigra. And let’s be candid, it has played a VERY IMPORTANT ROLE in world history.
First of all, let’s remember: THERE WERE NO REFRIGERATORS! For quite a few years, like most of human history, it was pretty hard to keep one’s food “fresh.” Spices were critical to mask the taste of whatever unsavory rotten thing one was trying to ingest. That’s why, in the 14th century, Portuguese explorers set out, risking their lives, across terrifying seas to unknown lands. No, it wasn’t to “discover stuff!” It was to steal other people’s CINNAMON! (What’s the DEAL with cinnamon?) Many scholars believe that if the Portuguese had been able to grow cinnamon in suburban Lisbon, the Europeans still would not know that the Americas are to their west and Asia is to their east. So, you can certainly understand why the ubiquitous mustard seed was also very popular. It was right there growing in the cracks of the sidewalks of Lisbon, and just by mixing it with grape juice, water, or vinegar…presto, you could disguise the taste of even the most rancid mutton and turnips. Good times!
There were many wonderful innovations through the ages. I’ll spare you the details, except to highlight the path-breaking work of Grey and Poupon. As you probably know, Dijon, France, became the world’s most famous center for mustard-making in the 13th century. In 1866 (there’s some debate about exactly what year this happened), in the biggest mustard-related break-through of modern times, the acclaimed Dijon mustard maker (or “moutardier”), Maurice Grey, got together with a rich guy, Auguste Poupon. They developed a unique recipe containing WHITE WINE. I think we should all rejoice that they developed this “alcoholic mustard” in the 1800s and not the 1300s; if folks had been getting drunk on mustard in the 1300s, the Renaissance might not have happened. Grey and Poupon also developed the first automatic mustard-making machine. In 1937, Dijon mustard was granted an “Appellation d’origine contrôlée,” which is a big deal because you can charge a whole lot more money for your stuff. Dijon is still regarded as the mustard capital of the world, even though virtually all “Dijon Mustard” is now made in Canada. In 1970, Grey-Poupon merged with the other most famous French mustard company, Maille. The merged company was eventually bought by R.J.Reynolds, which was bought by Nabisco, which was bought by Kraft. This makes me somehow very sad.
I hope you’ll deploy your favorite mustard on your favorite dog or other delicacy while enjoying our premiere on Sunday, August 2, at 6:00.