The Food Almanac: Monday, August 5, 2013

It's National Mustard Day!

Food Calendar
Today allegedly is National Mustard Day. I'm all for mustard. I don't think we use it nearly enough. Here in New Orleans, we're lucky enough to have a home-grown, unique variety of mustard that gives many of our dishes a distinctive flavor. One of the most ubiquitous sauces in Creole cookery--remoulade, in all its different colors and recipes--includes a good bit of Creole mustard.

Mustard is made from the seeds of a member of the cabbage family native to Europe. The seeds contain oil, so when they're crushed they become a paste. When water is added, a sulfuric compound in the seeds reacts to give the sharply flavored mustard bite. It fades away unless something acidic (vinegar, usually) is added.

Mustard has been used to flavor food in Europe since ancient times. Mustard seeds come in many colors, but yellow is not one of them. The yellow color in prepared mustards and Colman's dried mustard powder comes from the addition of turmeric. The plant that grows mustard seeds is also eaten as greens. But that's another flavor, another matter, for another day.

Gourmet Gazetteer
Mustard Creek flows into the Salinas River from the west at almost exactly the halfway point between Los Angeles and San Francisco on US 101. And on the Amtrak Coast Starlight, whose tracks are the last thing crossed by Mustard Creek. It's an area of dry farming. The nearest place where you might find mustard and the sandwich it flavors is Margie's Diner, two miles south in Paso Robles, just south. That's a great area for winegrowing.

Edible Dictionary
mustard greens, n.--One of the most popular of the many greens used in Southern American cooking. It's also the source of the small brown seeds ground to make prepared mustard. It has been cultivated since prehistoric times in southern Asia, and is widely used in the cuisines from China to the Middle East. It has a sharper flavor than those of most other greens. Here in New Orleans, it's almost always included in gumbo z'herbes, the green gumbo served at Lent. It's raised in many areas as a cover crop. It has the property of absorbing toxic metals from the soil, and is used to clean up hazardous waste sites. (You wouldn't eat that batch, one assumes.)

Deft Dining Rule #261
If the mustard a restaurant brings to the table is coarse-ground brown stuff in a little dish (as opposed to yellow stuff in a plastic squeeze bottle), you're in the right place to eat sausage.

World Food Records
On this date in 1990, a one-hundred-layer cake was baked and assembled. It measured 1214 inches high. It was the showpiece at the Shiawassee County Fair in Corunna, Michigan. They must have a lot of time on their hands around there. A rumor that the purchase of all the candles needed to top it caused the price of birthday candles to spiral uncontrollably has not been confirmed. Near as I can tell, this still holds the record for the world's highest cake.

Eating Around The World
This is Independence Day in Burkina Faso, a former French colony previously called Upper Volta. It's a landlocked nation just south of the Sahara desert. The French influence on the food there is evident, but for the most part the diet of the average Burkinabe is grain-based: rice, wheat, and millet. They eat gumbo, their version being a stew made from okra. An unusual staple food is néré seeds, eaten at most meals, usually fermented and rolled into dark-brown, nutty-tasting balls.

Food Namesakes
Theodore Sturgeon, the author of a number of science fiction books, died on this date in 1985. . . The rural philosopher and poet Wendell Berry was born today in 1935. He writes about how wonderful it is to live in the country, a sentiment with which I concur.

Words To Eat By
"You are what you eat, and who wants to be a lettuce?"--Peter Burns, British musician and cut-up, born today in 1959. He was talking about vegetarians.

"Mustard's no good without roast beef."--Chico Marx.

Words To Drink By
"The chief reason for drinking is the desire to behave in a certain way, and to be able to blame it on alcohol."-- Mignon McLaughlin, American writer.