ST. HELENA, CALIF. — Wimbledon and strawberries. The Super Bowl and chili. Baseball and hot dogs.
Every sports event has its own snack sidekick. With baseball season opening in a week, those familiar franks will be devoured at a clip quicker than Randy Johnson's fastball. And that same old bright-yellow mustard will once again be slathered onto just about every dog in the stadium.
The ballpark has somehow remained immune to the gourmet-mustard revolution of the past decade. Some fans like it that way. A squirt of the yellow stuff in the plastic squeeze bottle is as much a part of the ballgame as the seventh-inning stretch, they say, outraged at the suggestion of an alternative to George J. French's 96-year-old concoction.
Other fans welcome a change. "I love going home to Chicago where I can have the spicy, dark-brown variety at Wrigley Field," says a Cubs fan. "l get tired of the same old French's at Boston's Fenway Park."
Fortunately there's hope beyond the ballpark for baseball and mustard fans. Neighborhood grocery stores usually sell at least the now-familiar trio - All-American yellow, French-style Dijon, and a dark, zesty German-style variety.
Large supermarkets offer a choice of flavors: hot varieties mixed with chilies, peppercorns, or horseradish; herb-flavored ones; or those sweetened with honey or maple syrup. Textures range from smooth to crunchy, depending on how finely the seed is ground.
Gourmet stores offer a dizzying display of the popular condiment. At a Dean & Deluca's in St. Helena, Calif., shelves are stocked with 65 different mustards. "It hasn't been the same since Grey Poupon came on the scene," says Cathy Leland, manager of packaged foods.
Five of the 65 mustards are made right there in Napa Valley, says Ms. Leland. Honey mustard, Dijon-style, and flavor-of-the-month wasabi mustard are the current bestsellers.
With a nod toward Americana, Dean & Deluca also offers a gourmet version of the bright-yellow squeeze-bottle mustard. And a few aisles away, customers snap up locally grown mustard greens for salads and soups.
It may be small in size, but there's nothing tiny about mustard's history and flavor. According to Claire Hopley, author of "Making and Using Mustards," mustard dates back to the Stone Age. Iron-Age farmers were the first to cultivate it. Greeks and Romans used mustard to make sauces and pickles. And in medieval England and Northern Europe, mustard was especially prized as a way to add zest to winter's dreary diet of root crops and salt meat.
By the 13th century, Dijon, France, had established itself as a center of mustard production. It was there in 1777 that Messrs. Grey and Poupon formed a partnership to make a more pungent mustard. Their Dijon factory still stands.
There's no end to the uses for mustard. It not only spices up a roast-beef or turkey sandwich, but it's also a flavorful base for a multitude of sauces and salad dressings. Mustard is compatible with meat, game, fish, and vegetables.
Some cooks keep a jar on the kitchen counter - just in case. The late food personality Bert Greene, for example, said of the versatile sauce: "I am so helplessly addicted [to mustard] that I cannot manage to slip on an apron unless I know it is within easy reach."
If you share even a grain of Mr. Greene's enthusiasm for mustard, you might want to try these recipes. The Leek, Goat Cheese, and Mustard Quiche and the Potted Ham could be served on baseball's big day, with a squeeze bottle of yellow stuff kept on hand for traditionalists. And if it's your turn to be a guest, take along a jar of homemade mustard sauce. It's easier to make than jam, and it just might get even more raves.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society