BOSTON — Some families share a sweet tooth. Mine shares a mustard tooth. This spicy legacy runs on both sides of my family.
These are bountiful days for mustard lovers, with flavors ranging from sweet to tangy, textures from creamy to coarse. It is a far cry from my 1960s and '70s youth when a jar of French's was about the only option. The jar (squeeze bottles were a luxury reserved for restaurants) was embossed with what looked like a fence design and was perpetually crusted with a rim of dried mustard. My father slathered it on hamburgers, my mother approved of its low calorie content, and I liked its pungent flavor.
I was unaware of my mustard heritage until one day my mother splurged on a jar of Boetje's Dutch mustard, one of the few choices besides "salad" mustard available in our Grand Rapids, Mich., grocery store. It was a muted shade of yellow and contained dark flecks of mustard seed. The flavor really set it apart from the topping that usually graced my hot dogs. It was strong and had a zest that made me grab for the water glass. I don't think I've eaten the plain yellow stuff since.
My mother had bought this brand during a spate of nostalgia, because it was what her Dutch-born grandfather used to eat. He ate it with everything, she said, including vegetables. We had broccoli spears at that meal, so we dipped the broccoli heads in the dark mustard, and thus a great culinary idea was passed on to the third and fourth generations.
My Jewish dad sampled some of the new mustard and then took some more. It was good, he thought, but nothing like the mustard his mother used to make. He explained that she made wonderful hot mustard that would make your eyes water. She made mustard! Everything in our household came from the grocery store, yet I was aware people canned things like tomatoes and peaches. But making mustard? That was French's job, or now, Boetje's.
Shortly thereafter, a sort of mustard renaissance began in America. Mustard flavors and varieties increased. Dijon became a household word. Recipes in cooking magazines featured it as a major ingredient. The condiment was now a hot commodity, stocked not only on supermarket shelves, but also in gourmet shops with prices only a guy chauffeured in a Rolls Royce could afford. And still my dad talked of his mother's mustard.
She had died when I was 10 years old. My memories were of a woman with thick, steel-gray eyebrows and a stern demeanor, who never quite accepted a Gentile daughter-in-law raising a Gentile granddaughter. She was always enthroned in the same chair.
I couldn't picture her ever being the sort of grandma who would prepare chicken soup or kugel with the loving admonition to "Eat, eat."
But she made tasty mustard. How? That was my question, but there was no one left to tell me. And my father, whose cooking repertoire consisted of tuna salad and boiled eggs, didn't know.
OVER the years from youth to adulthood, I developed an interest in cooking. I read numerous cookbooks, but never saw a recipe for mustard.
Sometime after my father passed on, my mother let me take one of her cherished but little-used cookbooks: "Favorite Recipes compiled by B'nai B'rith Women of Grand Rapids, Michigan,1947." Cookbooks put together by members of churches, synagogues, or religious organizations are among my favorites, so I read every recipe in the slim volume. And there, near the end, under the "sauces" heading was Homemade Hot Mustard from Mrs. Ida Emdin - my grandmother.
The elusive recipe had been in my mother's cookbook cupboard all these years! It was a marvelous discovery, for I thought the recipe was lost to time. I only wished that I had found it earlier. I would have loved to have prepared it for my dad, as I did for my own family of mustard lovers.
Dad said it was hot, but that's an understatement: One dab clears the sinuses. It tastes the way I remember my grandmother - fiery with a bite. She was an enigmatic woman, but she had sauce. How appropriate that the lasting link would be spicy mustard.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society