Sometimes the cherished things, those that are closest to your heart (or your stomach) are the last to get mentioned. How can I have been writing about Paris for over a year, and not have divulged my rampant love affair?
This is a long-standing passion. Not the kind of I-joined-the-mustard-bandwagon-in-the-90s story. I have been defined as "the weird person who likes mustard with everything" since the Pleistocene era.
When I was wee demoiselle americaine, all I knew was French's mustard. In our family, it dwelled in a fat glass pump-jar on the middle shelf of the fridge. I was regularly ridiculed by my older siblings for making mustard sandwiches. So what? I happened to enjoy tracing squiggly designs on the slice of white bread before folding it in half to devour. But god, did I ever love that thrilling pump jar -- and that yellow, yellow, yellow mustard. Sometimes I indulged in just a little dollop on my fingertip between meals. Fortunately for my evolving palate, my French's-mustard era came to an end when, at eighteen, I spent a summer in France.
That magic summer I discovered Moutarde de Meaux and Dijon mustard. An awakening, an epiphany, a spiritual rebirth! My French host family used mustard daily as a condiment for lamb, sausages, steak, virtually any red meat. It was the basis of all manner of sauces. Looking back, I think this culinary discovery weighed heavily in my becoming such an ardent Francophile. Any country that truly understood and adored mustard the way I did simply had to have a permanent and central place in my life. And finally I understood that "French's mustard" had nothing to do with French. It was just the company owner's last name, for cripes sake.
I entered college two days after leaving France that monumental summer. As an undergrad I hoarded jars of Grey Poupon and one beloved wax-topped earthenware crock of Meaux in my dorm room, to sneak it into the dining hall to make the institutional food palatable. Since the cafeteria lacked carottes rappées with a perfect mustard-based vinaigrette, back in my dorm room I invented the art form of crunching on whole carrots dunked unceremoniously in an open jar of Dijon mustard. In that post-hippie era of seeking whatever head-rushes one could get, there was no better rush than the sinus-burning thrill of a good hit of Dijon. Even my skeptical roommates began indulging in the occasional mustard-and-carrot habit, though I think it was just to humor me. Or maybe it was that knock-your-boots-off sinus kick.
By the time I graduated from college Dijon mustard was finally showing its face in more public venues in major cities in the US. Whenever possible I dined only at restaurants (at best, upscale burger joints) that served Dijon mustard. When after two years I was departing from my first post-grad job at big Boston corporate firm, a colleague lampooned me in a goodbye toast:
There was a proofreader named Polly
So talented, charming and jolly!
When asked how could she
Stomach this company,
She said, "Not without mustard, by golly!"
I dreamed of opening a small mustard shop in Harvard Square. I wrote fan letters to the Heublein Company, owners of Grey Poupon. Friends and family pooh-poohed my entrepreneurial idea as sheer folly. "Who on earth would go to a place just to buy mustard?" they laughed. "You're the only one who could love mustard so much."
So instead I became a mere moutarde aficionado. A dijon dilettante. Subsequent trips to France, whenever I could scrape together funds and vacation time, found me bringing home three cheap basics -- espadrilles, classic market paniers and a dozen or so glasses of Amora mustard. The kind decorated with cartoons. I amassed a sizable collection of "Lucky Luke" Amora drinking glasses. This practice continued until one fateful return trip, when a half-liter mega-jar of mustard shattered in transit and oozed into every pore of the contents of my suitcase. It was the only time in my existence that for a full 24 hours I never wanted to see mustard ever, ever again.
Fast forward through the twentysomething years. As a young bride, I knew before taking the doctor's rabbit test that I was pregnant: one day, the taste of mustard suddenly repelled me. I spent nine forlorn months of gagging at the mere smell -- it couldn't even be sneaked into a sauce. I cried, I wept, I longed for mustard, but had to wait until celebrating my daughter's birth before I could down a dab of my beloved Dijon. Later, when my kids were toddlers, I regularly offered them good Dijon mustard (by now much more readily available) to improve the gastronomic quality of their favorites, mini-hotdogs or chicken nuggets. Though I tried not to take it personally, my darling son always preferred smothering Ranch dressing on every dish except breakfast and dessert. If I hadn't given birth to him personally I would wonder if he were really a child of mine.
Of course, I would NEVER favor one child over the other, but I do admit that my daughter probably gets many, many more presents than my son at Christmas because she exhibits extreme maternally-inherited moutarde-love. (Heh-heh, just kidding, Harry!)
As Grey Poupon gained popularity in the states, Moutarde de Maille also started making its way to the grocery store shelves. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, mustard in every form imaginable started sprouting up. Unrecognizable mustard. Honey mustard, horseradish mustard, grainy mustard, Jack Daniel's mustard, fruit-flavored mustards. Mustard, mustard everywhere. Ugh. Suddenly it seemed that yellow French's-style mustard was creeping back into popularity, only surreptitiously disguised. There was so much quasi-variety that it was hard to find the genuine, unadulterated article.
Fast forward to now. Me. In Paris. Moutarde heaven. Every cafe, every bistro, has a basic condiment set that they place on your table: salt, pepper and Dijon mustard. No self-respecting steak-frites would feel properly dressed without it.
Oh, and that mustard boutique I dreamed of opening? Folly, indeed. Check out the thriving Maille boutique and mustard museum on the place de la Madeleine, one of the most expensive addresses in Paris. Not only do they have Dijon mustard in all of its best and most ancient recipes, in all sizes of beautiful ceramic crocks, but they also sell it fresh. On tap. Bring your own jar or buy one there and fill 'er up.
Now that's what I call a rush.
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