Mustard: From Prehistoric Pot to Ballpark Dog

This is my favourite condiment, absolutely.  I have a book on mustard:  A Dash of Mustard, Mustard in the Kitchen and on the Table, by Katy Holder and Jane Newdick, Firefly Books, 1996]

Mustard has a long history–not only in our cuisine, but also in our medicaments.  Most of us have heard of a ‘mustard plaster’ no doubt, although its utility has passed out of fashion long since.  Where did the use of mustard for food or medicine start, we wonder?  Archaeological evidence tells us that early humans used mustard seeds to season their food…

Prehistoric Humans Used Spices Too

Shards of 6,000-year-old cooking pots from northern Europe show traces of mustard seed, likely used as a seasoning for fish and meat

By Joseph Stromberg,, August 21, 2013

A new analysis of food residue encrusted on millennia-old pottery shards collected from sites in Germany and Denmark shows that prehistoric humans used the spice mustard seed to season the plant and animal staples that made up the bulk of their diet. The artifacts…are between 5,750 and 6,100 years old, an era during which people in the area were in the midst of transitioning from hunter-gatherer to nomadic societies. []

pottery with mustard seed

Food residue encrusted on 6,000-year-old pottery fragments from Northern Europe, such as the one above, show traces of mustard seed, which was likely used as a seasoning for fish and meat. Image via Hayley Saul

So how did mustard wend its way from prehistoric Europe to a baseball fan’s ballpark hotdog?

First a few basics, for ‘them as doesn’t know’ (which included me until I read this).  The flower of the mustard plant is always yellow, but the ripened seeds are of three types:  white, black, and brown.  White (sinapis alba, a.k.a. brassica alba) is naturalized throughout northern Europe and North America; black mustard (brassica nigra) is native to southern Europe and western Asia; brown mustard (brassica juncea) is native to India.  Mustards are part of the same plant family that includes all the cabbages and broccolis, radish and watercress.  None are poisonous.  (p. 10, A Dash of Mustard)

Here’s a bit on medical uses:

“Mustard seeds when crushed produce an oil which is fierce and pungent.  Used externally, this oil first irritates then partially anesthetizes the sensory nerves and so it has been used for centuries to relieve the symptoms of rheumatism, gout and arthritis as well as colds and fever.  Taken internally in large quantities, mustard oil is a powerful emetic, but used in smaller doses it has the effect of a digestive and diuretic, and also a stimulant.  Other remedies incorporating mustard include chewing the seeds to relieve toothache and gargling for a sort throat with an infusion of mustard and warm wine.  Mustard footbaths were a popular everyday treatment until quite recently, and mustard baths for the whole body have been in and out of fashion over the centuries.  Poultices have definitely gone out of vogue, but these messy “bandages” were regularly prescribed for all manner of ailments at one time and often included mustard in their list of ingredients.”  (p. 7, A Dash of Mustard)

I’ve heard of mustard plasters, but not mustard poultices…

While most people have heard of “mustard plasters”—and some still remember from their childhoods when their mothers stuck those smarting congestion-alleviators on their chests—there is less awareness of mustard “poultices,” used not only by Hippocrates, but well into the 20th Century in the United States.

What is a poultice? Picture mixing some mustard into a hot porridge, wrapping it in a towel and putting it on your chest. That’s the basic concept.

Applying a mustard poultice was less drastic than using a plaster (mustard paste spread inside gauze, towels, or other dressing). A medical doctor, Finley Ellingwood, explained in his 1919 work, “The American Materia Medica, Therapeutics and Pharmacognosy”:

“When mild counter-irritation only is desired, which is to be prolonged for some hours, a poultice is made in the proportion of one part of mustard to four or six of linseed meal or flour. This is not, however, effective in acute pain, but only where there is soreness or prolonged distress. Vinegar and mustard also make a good poultice for prolonged use, as vinegar destroys an excess of activity of the mustard.”

REMINISCING (Column), Metropolitan News-Enterprise, Page 15

Mustard Poultice: a Gushy Version of the Mustard Plaster

By ROGER M. GRACE, Thursday, February 24, 2005,

And as for the origins of mustard for medicinal use…

The ancients held that mustard was good, and good for you, if not a virtual panacea. The Greeks credited Aesculapius, son of Apollo and god of medicine, with creating it. Dioscorides, the first-century a.d. Greek physician whose De re medica was the standard pharmacological text for centuries, prescribed mustard for everything from swollen tonsils to epilepsy, and as a tonic against “feminine lassitude.” The Roman scholar Pliny the Elder ground mustard seed with vinegar and used it as a poultice for snakebite and scorpion stings, while the Greek physician Hippocrates favored mustard poultices for treating bronchitis, pneumonia, rheumatism and neuralgia—ample precedent for today’s folk medicine remedy of a mustard plaster for many of the same ills.

—Smithsonian, June 1, 2000

In medieval cooking, mustard was used to make old meat or fish edible by masking rancid flavours.  The seeds were either roughly crushed or used whole.  At one point in its history it was considered a cheaper way of adding heat to a dish, instead of the more costly black pepper, and it was around before the arrival of chilies in Europe.  (p. 8, A Dash of Mustard)

The Romans first introduced mustard to France (or Gaul, as it was then known).  The epicenter of the French mustard industry was and is Dijon in Burgundy, which is also a major wine- and vinegar-producing area.  It seems that the mustard makers of this region adapted Duke Philip the Bold’s motto (Moult me Tarde) for their own commercial trademark, and it is surmised that this was abbreviated to “moutarde”—the French for “mustard.”  The Dijon area saw the beginning of the great family companies Maille and Grey Poupon (this last named for the partnership formed by  Maurice Grey and Auguste Poupon in 1866).  (p. 9, A Dash of Mustard)

Very little mustard seed, however, is actually grown in France today; most of the world’s supply comes from western Canada.

Here are a couple of interesting anecdotes from the days of mustard’s popularity in medieval France:

“King Louis XI of France (1423-83) carried his own personal pot of mustard, made for him by a Dijon mustard maker.  He had a disconcerting habit of arriving unannounced to eat with his Parisian subjects, producing the mustard pot at each meal.” Louis-XI

King Charles VI (1368-1422) of France also had a weakness for mustard in all his food, especially a peasant dish consisting of herb-coated chicken with a mustard sauce.  (p. 17, A Dash of Mustard)Charles VI of France

In Britain, mustard was used as frequently in cooking as it was in France, being a very cheap spice and also native grown.  Mustard was essential eating with salt fish, particularly herrings and stockfish (dried and salted cod and similar fish).  Tewkesbury was an early centre for mustard production, primarily in the 16th and 17th centuries, as immortalized in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part II:

DOLL TEARSHEET:  They say Poins has a good wit.

FALSTAFF: He a good wit? hang him, baboon! his wit’s as thick as Tewksbury mustard; there’s no more conceit in him than is in a mallet.

Another manufacturer was Keen’s from Garlic Hill in London, established in 1742 and believed to be the reason for the saying, “as keen as mustard.”

Their advertisements united beef with mustard in the public imagination, so that beef and mustard were inextricably linked, although serving these two together had a long history preceding that point in time.  There’s apparently an expression that embodies this culinary pairing:  “Sympathy without relief is like to mustard without beef.”  The origins of the expression are apparently unknown, but perhaps connected with this conversation from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew? (ca 1590-92)…


I cannot tell; I fear ’tis choleric. What say you to a piece of beef and mustard?


A dish that I do love to feed upon.


Ay, but the mustard is too hot a little.


Why then, the beef, and let the mustard rest.


Nay then, I will not: you shall have the mustard, Or else you get no beef of Grumio.


Then both, or one, or any thing thou wilt.


Why then, the mustard without the beef.


Go, get thee gone, thou false deluding slave,

Beats him

That feed’st me with the very name of meat: Sorrow on thee and all the pack of you, That triumph thus upon my misery! Go, get thee gone, I say.

Colman’s is another famous mustard name, and well known to this day. When the appeal of mustard was waning in the 1920’s in Britain, Colman’s advertising agency came up with a campaign that used the sides of London buses for the message, “Has father joined the Mustard Club?”  The members of the club were fictitious characters, and there was a list of rules published for Mustard Club members:

  1. Every member shall on all proper occasions eat Mustard to improve his appetite and strengthen his digestion.
  2. Every member when physically exhausted or threatened with a cold, shall take refuge in a Mustard Bath.
  3. Every member shall once at least during every meal make the secret sign of the Mustard Club by placing the Mustard pot six inches from his neighbour’s plate.
  4. Every member who asks for a sandwich and finds that it contains no Mustard shall publicly refuse to eat same.
  5. Every member shall see that the Mustard is freshly made, and no member shall tip a waiter who forgets to put Mustard on the table.
  6. Each member shall instruct his children to “keep that schoolboy digestion” by forming the habit of eating Mustard.

The Password of the Mustard Club was “Pass the Mustard, please.”

Colman's Mustard Shop and Museum

I’m going to gratuitously include a photo of my particular favourite, along with some of its variations and permutations.:

Mustard-Family Frenchs

The following excerpt from an article by Joanna Blythman and Rosie Sykes is for ‘the foodies’ and comes from The Guardian online, Monday 18 November 2013:

Mustard, and mustard seed, is an indispensable ingredient in any cook’s larder. Whole, mercury-black mustard seeds, either dry roasted, or “tempered” in a hot oil with fresh curry leaves, show off their nutty character in southern Indian cooking. Once ground, mustard seed releases its warmth, earthiness and pungency. Smooth mustard brings a kick to otherwise mild and cuddly dishes, such as croque monsieur, quiche and cauliflower cheese. The emulsifying properties of smooth mustard make it handy in vinaigrette, or to help bring together and thicken a sauce. It’s a taste thing whether you go for the yellow, English, sinus-clearing type, or the mellower European sort. Wholegrain mustards can be aggressively vinegary, so be sure you want that acid note before you add it too enthusiastically.

Why is mustard good for me?

The Greeks and Romans were on to something when they used mustard seeds for medicinal purposes. The mustard plant, like broccoli, radish and cabbage, belongs to the brassica family, a group of vegetables that contain health-promoting glucosinolates. Enzymes in the seeds then break these down into isothiocyanates. These compounds give mustard its eye-watering pungency, and many studies now suggest that they also seem to inhibit the growth of cancer cells, most notably in the gastrointestinal tract and colon. Mustard seeds are an excellent source of selenium, a trace element that is also thought to have an anti-cancer effect.  UK soils are generally low in selenium so eating mustard, and mustard seeds, can help boost your selenium level.


And here’s a reference to mustard seed in the Bible, which reminds me of a dear friend who wore a mustard-seed pendant beginning at the time her baby son was born with a heart defect…

Matthew 17:20 – And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.

necklace, all things are possible

And so the mustard seed became a symbol of faith and hope, and that, as inscribed on the pendant pictured above, “All Things Are Possible.”

And finally, what is the origin of the phrase “doesn’t cut the mustard”? There are a variety of explanations on the internet, but I thought this one was the most plausible:

“WHEN MUSTARD was one of the main crops in East Anglia, it was cut by hand with scythes, in the same way as corn. The crop could grow up to six feet high and this was very arduous work, requiring extremely sharp tools. When blunt they “would not cut the mustard.” All this and everything else you could ever want to know about mustard can be found at the Mustard Museum in Norwich.”  [,5753,-2242,00.html]

Of course the expression “doesn’t cut the mustard” usually means that someone is not capable of meeting requirements in some way.

So, while it’s nice to be ‘keen as mustard,’ it’s even better to be ‘cutting the mustard.’

If you are suspected of ‘cutting the cheese,’ however, it would be quite another matter.



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