Are you chopping down those troublesome mustard plants with the yellow flowers? Think again. You could make your own mustard. Or if you are just tired of weeding, sit back in a lawn chair with your favorite beverage and contemplate the history and uses of the lowly mustard plant and its seeds.
Mustard is a member of the Brassica family of plants that bear tiny edible seeds and have edible leaves. In fact, the whole plant is non-poisonous, although it can become an irritant with too much exposure to the skin. That’s why in grandpa’s day it was used for congested chests in the form of a mustard plaster.
The English word mustard is a contraction of the Latin mustum ardens or burning must. That’s a reference to the heat of crushed mustard seeds mixed with must, the unfermented juice of wine grapes. The Code of Hammerabi mentioned mustard among the medicinal plants without giving a clue to its use. The Greeks used the mustard plant as a medicinal herb, applying mustard plasters to cure various ailments.
It took the early Romans to turn mustard seeds into a form of the condiment we know today, grinding mustard seeds and mixing them with must. The leaves of both the black and white mustard plant also nourished Roman troops as a salad green or as a cooked vegetable.
Rome spread the use of mustard to the conquered Gauls and Saxons who expanded its culinary uses. By the fifteenth century France had become a major mustard manufacturer. Specially prepared Dijon moutardes were all the rage in Europe.
Mustard in those days was sold in balls of lightly crushed seeds that had been prepared with vinegar or honey and little cinnamon, although the Italians preferred orange or lemon peel. Cooks stored the balls until needed; then mixed the mustard with a little vinegar before using.
In the eighteenth century an Englishwoman of Durham invented mustard powder. Cooks could measure out what was needed and liquefy it with vinegar or cold water. In 1866 Jeremiah Colman founded Colman Mustard of England and was appointed chief mustard-maker to Queen Victoria.
Here in America George T. French created ballpark mustard, that yellow mustard so familiar to connoisseurs of hotdogs and hamburgers. He blended seeds of the white mustard plant with salt, vinegar and tumeric. First manufactured under French’s name in 1904, it became the quintessential American mustard.
Today more than 700 million pounds of mustard are consumed worldwide. The French are the world’s largest consumer of mustard, downing 1.5 pounds per capita annually and buying 70 percent of the Canadian mustard crop.
If culinary delights don’t cause you to forego uprooting mustard plants, consider this. Mustard plants sweeten the soil by absorbing salts. It protects collard greens and Brussels sprouts from pesky aphids and flea beetles, and its roots release a chemical that prevents root rot in adjacent plants and inhibits the emergence of destructive nematodes.
Making a trip to Wisconsin? You can visit the National Mustard Museum, home of the world’s largest collection of mustards and mustard memorabilia. Museum found Barry Levenson left his job as a Wisconsin assistant attorney general in 1992. He said the impetus for the museum came after his favorite baseball team, the Boston Red Sox, lost the world series. He wandered into a supermarket and passing the mustards heard a voice in his head that said: If you collect us, they will come.