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By Mike Hudson

Without question, the finest mustard in North America is served up at the Second Avenue Deli, located at the corner of 10th Street in what is now known as the East Village of Manhattan. Like its incomparable pickles, the brown mustard is prepared fresh every day in the restaurant's kitchen. No preservatives are used, and even refrigerated it is only good for a day or two, but the pungent mix of brown mustard seed, spices and vinegars is an adventure for the nose and palate alike.

While the films of Billy Crystal and Woody Allen have made Katz's on Houston Street and the Carnegie deli in the midtown tourist district more famous than the Second Avenue, none serves a better corned beef, tongue or pastrami on rye, and all have abandoned the painstaking mustard-making process in favor of serving Gulden's, offering with a $15 sandwich the exact same condiment a street vendor would use to top your one-dollar dirty-water dog.

Gulden's, the oldest continuously produced mustard in the United States, is a passable concoction, perfectly suitable for use as a dip for cocktail peanuts, pretzels and, at holiday time, pigs in blankets. It is also the only decent mustard one can commonly purchase locally south of the Mason-Dixon Line, where the same barbarians who brought us President George W. Bush prefer to top their hot dogs with ketchup.

Now, a person's politics are their own business, but the desecration of a frankfurter with ketchup by anyone over the age of 18 should be an offense punishable by horsewhip.

Gulden's traces its history back to 1862 -- though food historians argue for a date of 1867 -- when Charles Gulden went into business near the South Street Seaport in Lower Manhattan. His convenient proximity to the port provided him with access to the finest ingredients from all over the world and, after considerable experimentation, he came up with the still-secret recipe used today.

It is doubtful, however, the mustard produced by Mr. Gulden 140 years ago bears more than a casual resemblance to that sold under his name today. Gulden's is America's best-selling brown mustard, and the third best-selling mustard overall after French's and Chicago's Plochman's.

It's what you get if you order a dog at Shea Stadium in Queens or Fenway Park in Boston.

Even so, some mustard aficionados say the quality of Gulden's has declined since the family sold the company to the European food giant ConAgra in the 1980s, and have launched private crusades to find a suitable all-around replacement.

Kosciusko's is a name that comes up frequently wherever mustard mavens meet. A brown, Polish-style blend, it is thick and slightly grainy. It is named for Brigadier General Thaddeus Kosciusko, the Polish military genius who fought on the American side during the Revolutionary War, and designed and built the original fort at West Point, then known as "America's Gibraltar."

The mustard honoring the general is suitable for all appropriate mustard applications but, unsurprisingly, seems particularly fitting when slathered on bratwurst or kielbasa, or used as a dip with a potato knish or a steaming plate of pierogies. All this, of course, is predicated on whether or not you can find it. Like Buffalo's acclaimed Weber's or Cleveland's mouth-watering Bertman's, locating a jar of Kosciusko's can be a hit-or-miss proposition in many parts of the county.

A product of Chicago, Kosciusko's was for decades locked in a fierce battle with the savory yellow Plochman's mustard for control of the Windy City and its lucrative Chicago dog concessions. Like Al Capone and Bugs Moran, the competing mustards dueled for supremacy until finally, in 1995, the family-owned Plochman's simply bought out the Kosciusko company, continuing production using the same recipe.

Today, Plochman's -- "The mustard lover's mustard!" -- competes primarily with French's, an inferior product that has, however, maintained a stranglehold on the great unwashed masses who comprise the lion's share of the North American mustard market. Still, one supposes that -- despite being unwashed -- the masses are better off psychologically than the pathetic status-seekers who buy Grey Poupon or any of the other "prestige" mustards.

Characterized by a creamy, almost mayonnaise-like texture, combined with a near complete lack of complexity in flavor, French's has been successfully duplicated by generic mustard-makers of every stripe. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but when the consumer can purchase a bottle of mustard, indistinguishable from the mustard you produce, for a fraction of the price, something is very wrong indeed.

Introduced in 1904 by brothers Robert and Francis French of Parsippany, N.J., French's was the first mustard to employ artificial preservatives in its recipe, enabling the company to ship the product far and wide and still guarantee freshness. August Busch accomplished the same feat with his Budweiser beer, and Henry Heinz's application of the technique in producing his ketchup ensured all three brands dominant positions in the expanding American marketplace.

I was saddened beyond words during my first visit to Yankee Stadium years ago, when the vendor handed me a couple of little plastic single-serve packets of French's yellow with which to top my Kahn's ballpark frank. There, in that veritable temple of baseball and frankfurter-eating history and tradition, where Babe Ruth once reportedly ate 25 hot dogs during the break between games of a double-header, I found myself reduced to fumbling with the slick, slippery packets, so frustrated by the time I managed to produce a suitable amount of the mediocre mustard inside that the joy of consuming the dog pretty much left me.

The wiener the world awaited indeed.

The one saving grace of French's is its high heat, making it especially suitable for use on a bologna and Wonder Bread sandwich I've found particularly helpful in sweating out cold and flu-like symptoms. Just make sure that the amount of French's you use is equal to or greater by weight than the amount of bologna, and in no time at all your hands will be covered with bright yellow drippings and small beads of sweat will appear on the bridge of your nose and forehead. You'll be better in no time.

The king of the hot yellow mustards, however, is Buffalo's own Weber's. Family owned and operated since 1922, critics carp that Weber's takes unfair advantage by lacing its product with its own world-renowned horseradish. They wish they'd have thought of it.

Weber's is so good, it can go where other yellow mustards fear to tread -- on expensive cured meats such as corned beef and pastrami, on bratwurst or anything Polish and even as a seasoning in baked beans and other recipes. While it is Western New York's largest-selling mustard, its influence remains limited to the region. And that's too bad for everyone else.

A similar situation exists in my hometown of Cleveland, where Bertman's Original Stadium mustard reigns supreme. More tan than brown, it was originally served at League Park prior to the Indians moving to the mammoth Municipal Stadium at the end of the Depression. The mustard followed the team, taking on the name of the new facility. It wasn't available in stores, and there are people who bought tickets to many a mediocre Tribe game simply to get their fix of this fabulous fixin'.

It was at the old Municipal Stadium, sometime during the mid-1960s, that I first fell in love with Bertman's, probably while watching the Tribe lose to the Yankees. Having been raised on French's, the dusky condiment conveyed an exotic sophistication, a hint there might be more to the world than could be viewed from the prism of the East Side neighborhood I was growing up in.

On Fridays during Lent, Catholic fans at the old stadium could be seen squirting Bertman's straight onto their fingers. They didn't serve pretzels then.

Forbes magazine called it "the best mustard in the world," Sports Illustrated crowned it "the best in the league," and the spicy delicacy has even been requested by crew members on no fewer than three space shuttle missions.

A sordid legal dispute among the Bertman family in 1989 led to the creation of a new brand, Bertman's Ball Park Mustard, which uses the original recipe and is indistinguishable from the product available at Jacobs Field. The settlement stipulated that one faction of the feuding family could sell the product through retail outlets, while the other kept the profitable concession business with the Indians, Browns, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and other institutional customers.

The biblical prophet Abraham is said to have favored mustard as a flavoring when serving tongue to his guests more than 3,500 years ago. Was there ever a wiser man? Or one with better taste?

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com April 5, 2011