Mean Mr. Mustard

When I make a sandwich, I use mustard. Because I actually want to taste it, I don’t just put a little dab or a smear on the bread—I spread it on liberally. Problematically, I live on the west coast of the United States, where mustard is regarded not as the crushed seeds of a weedy, prolific, brassica mixed with vinegar and spices, but as a rare and treasured condiment to be dabbed reverentially on warm lobes of foie gras, or the mediocre charcuterie of some second-rate kitchen manager. Go to the grocery store here and they got 40 or 50 different four-to-six ounce jars of the golden preserve, blended with all manner of exquisite flavorings, like beer! or honey! or chilies! At times I just stand in slack-jawed awe of the alchemical geniuses behind these gilded alloys.

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The ingredient saga of Beaver Brand  Honey Mustard. Like commercial ice cream, it has maybe 15 more ingredients than it should. Flour? What thinking person making mustard thinks, “you know what this needs? Some fucking white flour, that’s what.” You can tell it was likely a food scientist because of the xanthan gum. Food scientists love that shit.

Despite the incredible creativity on display, I cannot figure how combining lowly mustard seeds with a tiny amount of some other cheap commodity justifies over a dollar an ounce. Where I’m from, we buy mustard by the pound, it costs pennies per ounce, and it’s strong. Oh, Oregon has Beaver brand! The working class mustard is featured in the six-pack condiment carriers that bedeck the picnic tables of every public house in the state. It’s so strong! So spicy! It totally sucks. It tastes like sarin gas bubbled through sulfuric acid, thickened with tapioca, and sweetened with HFCS. It has the ingredient list of a bottle of shampoo.

I tried solving this dilemma by making my own mustard, and that worked out okay. But while making mustard is technically pretty simple, crush seeds and mix with liquid and seasoning, it’s impractically labor intensive to do with regular home equipment. Also, the cuisinart and the mortar and pestle are never gonna turn out as nice a mustard as a mill.

I’d been tasting my mustard against the mustards of Portland, and it held up pretty well. As a model, I used the faint memory of the Plochman’s whole grain mustard that they sold in ceramic crocks for a while. I don’t know if I reached that standard, because I can’t find that mustard anymore. I know that it doesn’t hold up well against Edmond Fallot mustard. Fallot is another dollar-an-ounce mustard, but at least it doesn’t suck.

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I highly recommend the mustard on the left. The one on the right is more than serviceable, but is hardly exemplary.

Fortunately I make it back to the Midwest on occasion, where people know a thing or two about mustard.  Last time I went, I brought back two pounds of mustard from the Woeber Mustard company of Springfield, Ohio. Their Sandwich Pal Hot and Spicy Mustard is not excruciatingly hot, but that’s not how I like my mustard. It is sharp and pungent. It enlivens the most desultory of cold cuts or mournful cheese sandwiches. It sings on a sausage! It costs $5 for a pound, at the fancy store. On their site it goes for a mere $2.10+shipping (which is significant if you’re only buying a few bottles).

“What’s the catch?” No catch, my hip coast brethren. It’s not organic. It comes in a plastic squeeze bottle. The ingredients are few and simple: Vinegar, #1 mustard seed, salt, sugar, horseradish and spices. Oh, here’s the catch: you can’t find it here.

I F***ing really dig Science (It’s the Boss):

In the past, a lot of vanillin came from the waste from paper mills. Recently, a Japanese scientist, Mayu Yamamoto, found a novel way of making vanillin. She extracted lignin from cow dung and converted that to vanillin. This discovery won her the 2007 Ig Nobel prize for chemistry, the send-up of the real Nobel prize.

 

—Simon Cotton, Chemistry World Magazine

P.S. This apparently represents an improvement in vanillin manufacture. It’s typically made of crude oil. 

The Fine Art of Housewifery

I recently slogged through Laura Shapiro’s Perfection Salad, and it was pretty good. Her voice is academic and a little dry. She does have a real penchant for subtle comic understatement, but this is not the province of the Gangster and it took me about 100 pages to catch on. It’s all about the scientific cookery (or domestic science) movement in America in the mid 19th to early 20th century. The movement aimed to bring housekeeping and cookery up to the level of the more serious male pursuits of science and engineering and so forth. (I see so many parallels between this and modernist cuisine, I think it warrants at least one senior thesis.) This is the women’s movement that brought us Home Economics class.

I took Home Ec. in high school (now they call this “Family and Consumer Science”?!,) and it was absolutely useless. A lot of guys took it since they thought it would be full of females. It was not. I took it because I thought we would learn to cook some fancy-ass 80’s food straight out of the Silver Palate cookbook, then have a second lunch. We did not. We made cinnamon toast. I should have taken Shop.

Based on this experience alone, I agree with Shapiro’s premise that this movement was a bunch of hooey. Then there’s the sad denouement. Apparently the movement really went off the rails towards towards the late 19th century. Or maybe it just reached it’s absurd logical conclusion. The domestic scientists had always imagined themselves as social reformers, then they started telling people how big their butter pats should be (bigger the butter, the slicker the sandwich—that’s what I always say.) They kowtowed to silver-tongued food product salesmen, and shilled their brands at trade shows. The movement’s integration into mainstream academia created a sort of separate-but-equal hierarchy wherein female students were steered away from career track studies and into their domestic counterparts. Imagine, you could have been right there with Marie Curie, discovering radioactive decay, but instead you were tracking the decay of the family’s egg supply.

That ain’t right! Chicks can math too! But here’s the thing—I think Shapiro is a little too hard on these old-timey broads. She holds the leaders of this movement in a sort of comical contempt (and some of their ideas really are pretty funny, they purposefully make menus of all-white food, which they cook and don’t eat,) but housewifery is still hard work.

I don’t know if you know it but, I’m not really a gangster. I’m actually a stay-at-home-dad. A housewife, if you will. I only write at night, when my frivolous scribbling won’t distract from my duties as a housewife and father. But, before you laugh, I just wanna let you know that this shit is hard bro! Hardcore, that is.

I tried to send my wife to the grocery store the other day. I came up with a few ideas for dinners for the week, made up a list of groceries and then said: “Well… I need a roast for roast beef. I don’t know what they’re going to have. If they have a top round, or London broil sale, get a first cut, but have them split it laterally first and take it from the big side. But if they have bottom round, just get the first cut, have them cut into a new one. Sometimes they call it the watermelon cut. Wait, is top sirloin on sale? No, that’s sirloin tip steak, and you’ll need to see if the roast is actually cheaper than the steak at sale price. And it’s hard to get a good cut of. Actually, I’ll just get the meat later this week. Hot dogs? Yeah no, Hebrew National kind of sucks, Country Natural are worse. Maybe I’ll just go to Old Country Sausage later this week. We need some lettuce for salads, but I don’t know what looks good. If they have escarole, and it looks good, get that. If not, get romaine, unless it’s all crappy and dark….” I hadn’t realized, even shopping at the supermarket requires an enormous skill set.

I know, “this isn’t fair Gangster (I mean housewife), you used to work at the meat department cutting meat. You’re like a Gangster (or housewife) of meat! A regular citizen like your long suffering-wife can’t be expected to know all this stuff about buying a roast.” But that’s just the thing, all these old-timey housewives would probably put a butcher through the paces. Take Fanny Farmer for example, I bet that leering old McCreedy took a step back whenever she strode through the doors of his Boston butchery.

What I’m saying is, you gotta cut these ladies some slack. Even when I pour every ounce of my male privilege into it, I struggle to keep the floors clean and get a healthy, delicious meal on the table before 8:00 pm. I got an electric dryer. I have a gas stove and the full force of the US regulatory machine to ensure that my baking soda is, in fact, baking soda. I have been prepared for the role of housewife since I was a little kid and my mama made me help her clean the house and taught me how to fold laundry, then I spent 15 years taking care of myself. These ladies got married straight outta high school to men whose penises they had never even seen—perhaps not even in pictures. I too would like a school to teach me how to. Besides the bland food and the sanctimonious nattering, I’d say the only the mistake the Mary Lincoln’s and the Sarah Tyson Rorer’s of the world made was not educating the young men of Boston in the fine art of housewifery.