I regularly drive down to one of adjacent towns near the west side of Madison whenever my wife and I are craving Chinese food. There’s a wonderful place run by a Chinese painter and restaurateur, and I’m always excited to chat with her about the latest and greatest in her artistic life.
After I give her my order, I like to walk outside and look around the little plaza with all its cute shops and interesting cafes.
But one thing always stands out to me on these take-out excursions.
Just across the street is a mustard museum.
The National Mustard Museum.
Mustard and the Red Sox
The National Mustard Museum is the brain child of former Assistant Attorney General of Wisconsin, Barry Levenson. The inspiration for the museum came after a World Series loss by the Red Sox in ’86, which left Levenson in tears. Like many of us, he went on a grocery run to find solace. While pushing his cart aimlessly through the aisles, he saw it — his newfound inspiration — an endless wall full of mustard jars. He decided he needed a new hobby, and after purchasing several of the more obscure brands of mustards, he set out to collect all the mustards of the world.
By 1987, Levenson’s new hobby became so consuming that he once saw a new variety of mustard laying out on a leftover tray in the hotel hallway. He was on his way to argue a case in front of the Supreme Court, and didn’t have enough time to return to his room, so he stowed the unopened jar in his pants.
He won the case and may be the only lawyer to have done so with a jar of mustard in his pocket. It was clear that he needed to make the career move to full-time mustard aficionado.
Today, the museum features over 6,090 mustards from around the world with 5,624 jars of prepared mustard on display. On the first Saturday of August, the museum celebrates National Mustard Day every year with fundraising efforts and community activities. And in collaboration with the Madison Area Technical College, the museum also hosts the prestigious World-Wide Mustard Competition, where hundreds of mustards from around the world are entered and judged by chefs, food writers, and other food professionals in 16 categories. Three awards are given to the best of each category and a Grand Champion award is reserved for the best of the best.
The competition is held annually as well and is currently in its 25th year.
Mustard Oil Bombs
I can hardly say I’m as big of a mustardophile as Levenson, but I do love a great tasting Grey Poupon to accompany a freshly charbroiled brat or slathered on my lunch sandwiches. And I’ve always been curious about mustard from the perspective of a food scientist, so I dove right into the literature to see what all the fuss was about.
Mustards are made from the seeds of flowering members of the Brassicacae or Cruciferae family. As their family name suggests, these flowers are phylogenetic relatives of brassica/cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and cabbage. The sharp, distinctive flavor of mustard is the product of the family’s plant defense system called the mustard oil bomb. When mustard seeds are crushed with water, wine or vinegar, its cellular tissue releases two components — an acid-sensitive enzyme called myrosinase and a class of bitter agents known as glucosinolates — which combine and interact to form highly pungent compounds called isothiocyanates.
These isothiocyanates are the primary source of mustard flavor and possess antimicrobial properties, which allow mustard to keep nearly indefinitely. They are normally quite toxic and irritating to the pests that feed on mustard plants, but we humans have developed an unusual love affair with mustards for the particular sensation evoked by these compounds.
The chemical structure of isothiocyanates allow them to react directly with a pain-stimulating chemical sensing protein called TRPA1, found in the mucosal lining of the nose and mouth. Pain stimuli are activated by changes in the chemical structure of sensitive sulfur-containing amino acids located throughout the TRPA1 protein, which respond very quickly to isothiocyanates. The result is that fast, tear-inducing sensation that occurs every time you spoon a dollop of mustard into your mouth.
Since the mustard oil bomb defense system is a common feature of many other cruciferous plants (not to mention horseradish and wasabi, which are also related plant species), it happens to be responsible for the development of their flavors as well. While clearly quite effective at keeping predators at arm’s length, the mustard oil bomb is precisely what attracts us humans to these spices and vegetables. And by adding acidic vinegars and wines to the mustard seeds during the grinding process, we can control the level of ‘bite’ in the final mustard to our liking by slowing down the myrosinase enzyme and reducing the total concentration of isothiocyanates produced.
Grey-Poupon Colman & French
Evidence of mustard cultivation date back to the early 1800 BC, during the time of the ancient Indus civilization of the Indian subcontinent. However, the Romans may have been the first to experiment with mustard as a condiment by crushing mustard seeds with sweet grape must and flavoring the mixture with other herbs and spices. When the Romans conquered Gaul (France), they brought with them mustard seeds and grew the spice throughout the region.
Knowledge of mustard-making was eventually exported to Gaul, which was readily accepted and put into production by the local monastic communities (although some monks believed mustard was an aphrodisiac and forbade themselves from partaking in its production and use). With the extensive time spent on contemplation, reflection, and meditation, French monks had plenty of hours in the day to perfect their mustard-making to an art form, much in the same way as Zen monks did with soy sauce. By the 13th century, the city of Dijon in France had become the world center for mustard production and the condiment had gained widespread recognition for its unique flavor.
While mustard was an important part of French cuisine by this time, the spread of mustard was greatly accelerated by two historical events — the elevation of an English mustard to royal status and the invention of an automated mustard-making machine. In 1812, Jeremiah Colman of England founded Colman’s, an English manufacturer of mustard. The mustard became so renowned for its quality and taste that her Majesty the Queen of England declared Colman’s mustard to be the “crown jewel of mustards”. A Royal Warrant was issued to the company as exclusive manufacturers to Queen Victoria in 1866.
Across the English Channel, an automated Dijon mustard machine was being developed by Maurice Grey. Grey began winning awards for his mustard machine and, by 1860, was awarded a French Royal Appointment in the process. He eventually set out to produce mustard on a commercial scale. Grey partnered with Auguste Poupon, another mustard manufacturer, to form the Grey-Poupon company to produce their first Dijon mustard in 1866, the same year as the English Royal Warrant to Colman’s was granted.
But French’s yellow mustard, the classic American variety, made its appearance much later largely through the efforts of George J. French and his brother Francis French in 1904, during which time the mustard made its grand debut at the St. Louis World’s Fair.
Needless to say, their mustard became a major hit.
The American mustard was milder, lighter, and creamier than its European cousins, which George French believed would make the condiment more appetizing to the standard American consumer. In addition, what gives French’s mustard its distinctive yellow hue is the addition of brightly colored turmeric. Through the sheer popularity of their signature item, French’s mustard would be ubiquitously paired with hot dogs, corn dogs, hamburgers, and sandwiches here in the United States.
French’s was eventually acquired by Colman’s in 1926 for £750,000. Later on, Colman’s would merge with Reckitt & Sons, a manufacturer of household goods, to form Reckitt & Colman in 1938. Many of the food businesses of Reckitt & Colman, including Colman’s brand of mustard, would go on to become acquired by Unilever in 1995 for £250 million.
In 2017, French’s Mustard itself would trade hands from Reckitt Benckiser (from a 1999 merger between Reckitt & Colman and Netherlands-based Benckiser NV) to spice giant McCormick in a massive $4.2 billion deal that would include other iconic sauce brands such as Frank’s Red Hot and Cattlemen’s. The deal represented 20 times the annual earnings of French’s Mustard and placed McCormick squarely in a sauce war with Kraft Heinz Co., the recently formed company through a merger between Kraft and Heinz, the beloved American manufacturer of Heinz ketchup that has put out its own brand of mustard. Prior to the merger, Kraft also owned the Grey Poupon brand.
Currently the № 1 brand of mustard in the United States, French’s saw a drop in market share from 40.2 percent in 2014 to 35.7 percent in 2016, with sales falling in the last five years. In 2017, Kraft Heinz held a growing 19 percent of the mustard market in the US, according to Euromonitor.
Clearly, the Great Mustard War wages on in the modern day of multinational companies, food conglomerates, and stock exchanges.
These days, you can find mustards in just about any flavor. There’s sweet, honey, extra spicy, beer, wine, whiskey, and pecan. There’s German, Japanese, Chinese, English, French, Canadian, and American. The list goes on. For a quick overview, two great guides on mustard types and flavors can be found at Serious Eats and Food Republic.
The mustard possibilities are seemingly endless and keep expanding with our growing globalization. Both cultures and flavors continue to collide over this humble seed that’s formed the basis of many culinary delights. If Levenson’s collection of mustards is any indication of our collective gastronomical creativity in the mustard department, we sure have covered a lot of ground in the past thousands of years since the days of the Romans.
But at the end of the day, whether your choice of condiment is yellow, brown or green, we can all agree to love that bold, piquant mustard flavor.
P.S. Here’s a fascinating research article on how the diamondback moth blocks the toxic effects of the mustard oil bomb in cruciferous plants.