Mustards no good without roast beef. Chico Marx, Funny Business
Where did mustard come from and why is it yellow? If youve never thought about these things, its probably because you cant see the forest for the trees, or in this case, the mustard for the hot dog, hamburger or whatever. Read on for some answers and a new respect for one of Americas most popular spices.
If youve ever wondered where the expression "to cut the mustard" came from, you can stop right this minute. Its another way of saying to accomplish or to meet expectations. Its true origins, however, go back to the turn of the last century when to be the proper mustard was a slang phrase meaning to be the real thing, possibly because some mustards of the period did not contain the purest ingredients. OHenry coined it in 1907 in Heart of the West where he speaks of "looking around and finding a proposition that exactly cut the mustard." The English name, mustard, is derived from a contraction of the Latin mustum ardens, meaning burning wine. This is a reference to the spicy heat of the crushed mustard seeds and the French tradition of mixing the ground seeds with must, the unfermented juice of wine grapes. Be that as it may, the word refers to many things besides the spice, which has the most amazing significance of all.
The mustard seed is a prominent reference for those of the Christian faith, exemplifying something small and insignificant, which when planted, grows in strength and power. German folklore advises a bride to sew mustard seeds into the hem of her wedding dress to insure her dominance of the household. In Denmark and India, it is believed that spreading mustard seeds around the exterior of the home will keep out evil spirits. (If you add crushed garlic to the mixture, any vampire hiding out in your house will immediately fall down and die.) The ancient Chinese considered mustard an aphrodisiac. This is certainly a far cry from the Marx brothers and their clamor for roast beef sandwiches!
Mustard gas was coined by British soldiers in World War I, who thought the poisonous gas made by mixing ethylene with disulfur dichloride smelled a bit like English mustard. It is in no way connected with the mustard seed which as you know by now was too busy doing other things for other people in faraway lands. According to Barry Levinson, curator of the Mount Horeb Mustard Museum, secret documents recovered from German scientists at the end of World War II indicate that they were working feverishly on a new and even more terrifying weapon of mass immobilization. It was mayonnaise gas, whose victims were said to become limp and/or very boring either after inhaling or placing it anywhere near their mouths!
In all seriousness, mustard is the second most-used spice in the United States, its popularity exceeded only by the peppercorn. If you really think about it, what good is a hot dog, hamburger or almost any kind of meat sandwich without it? Nothing very memorable is the answer and it would appear that Chico Marx was absolutely right. Perhaps even beyond its unique taste is the fact that mustard works well with all types of meats; pork, seafood and poultry. It provides tremendous flavor in exchange for few calories and little fat. One gram of mustard flour contains just 4.3 calories. Mustard itself contains no cholesterol, only trace amounts of vegetable fat and is between 25-35% protein, depending on the variety of plant. Leaf mustard contains calcium, phosphorous, magnesium and vitamin B.
Mustard is made from the seeds of a plant in the Cruciferae family. Some cousins once or twice removed include cabbage, turnips and radishes. There are almost forty different varieties of this yellow-flowering plant that botanists classify into the genus, Brassica. Nearly all of the mustards found in supermarkets however, come from only three of these varieties: Brassica nigra, Brassica juncea or Brassica hirta. Brassica nigra produces only black mustard seeds, while Brassica juncea yields only brown seeds. The seeds of Brassica hirta are always yellow and used in the making of milder mustards. All parts of the plant are edible; including seeds, leaves and flowers. (Some say even the mustard growers themselves are edible, but this rumor can only be traced to the hearsay of jealous ketchup makers.)
Mustard is the oldest condiment known to the human race, although no one knows for sure who first used it to flavor food. It is believed to have originated in ancient Egypt where seeds have been found in the tombs of the ancient pharaohs. Prepared mustard dates back to the Romans, who ground the seeds and mixed them with wine to create their own pasty blend of crude sauces. The spice was then spread throughout Europe via their conquering legions.
It was at first considered to be a medicinal plant rather than a culinary one. In the sixth century BC, Greek scientist, Pythagoras, used mustard as a remedy for scorpion stings. Later, Hippocrates utilized it in a variety of medicines and poultices. Mustard increases blood circulation, hence its use as a mustard plaster, which is a dressing used to bring increased blood flow to inflamed areas of the body. In the ancient world they were applied to "cure" toothaches and a number of other ailments.