August 19, 2018

Mustard . . . by Joseph G. Evrard, Staff Kentuckian

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Do you have any idea how many types of mustard are out there? If you thought there were a lot of different brands of hot sauce, you ain’t seen nothin’ until you’ve investigated mustard. There’s good old fashioned yellow mustard (the kind you put on your hot dog at the ball game), coarse ground mustard, sweet mustard, vinegar mustard, spicy brown mustard, honey mustard, horseradish mustard, and on, and on, and on.

My Daddy (who was a mountain man, through and through) used to make his own mustard. He took great pride in his patch of mustard vines, which needed constant attention and carefully pruning every year. I can remember each spring he’d wait to see the first bees visit the mustard blossoms. He swore the number of bees attracted to the mustard flowers would predict the quality of the crop.

Slowly, throughout the summer, the mustard vines would produce great swelling bunches of mustard berries, which hung pendulously in the warm breezes, perfuming the air with their spicy aroma and conjuring up images of sizzling hot dogs on the grill.

Each day Daddy would walk up and down the rows of vines poking and prodding, sniffing and squeezing, testing and tasting. Finally, one day he’d come back from the fields and got on the phone to Horace (the migrant workers’ agent). “Tomorrow’s the day!” Daddy said to Horace and we all knew tomorrow would be nonstop work from dawn to dusk.

As the sun poked its head over the horizon, busloads of migrant workers pulled up in front of the house. These skilled mustard pickers brought their own tools, many of which qualified as genuine antiques passed down from father to son.

A complete set of mustarding tools includes the “Floppa,” a wide brimmed hat designed to protect the picker from the brutal rays of the late summer sun, the “Slicea,” a nesting looking curved knife used to cut the bunches of berries loose from the vine, the “Catcha,” a loosely woven basket designed to softly catch the falling bunch of berries without bruising them, and the “Oofa-Oofa,” a narrow wheeled cart much like a child’s wagon used to pull the harvested berries back to the processing vat.

It gained the name Oofa-Oofa from the sound the pickers make when dragging the heavily laden cart back from the fields, which soon were beehive of activity as the workers spread out to harvest the massive crop. On it went, for hours, the fields ringing with the distinctive sounds of a harvest.

By late afternoon, the huge wooden vat in the mustard house was full of fragrant, juicy berries. The workers came in from the fields for a well-deserved rest and a light meal. Every year the workers looked forward to the evening meal as the best time of the harvest day.
Daddy would hand out Mason jars of his “pure mountain spring water” that the brought in from the hollow out in the woods. Parched from their long day in the fields, the workers consumed this precious drink in huge gulps. It must have really refreshed them because every year the same thing happened.

After drinking a big bunch of Daddy’s pure mountain spring water, the workers began to sing, then dance, then, without warning, throw off their shoes and socks and begin to dance around in the big vat of mustard berries! This, of course, was a necessary and traditional part of the harvest, for the berries have to be crushed in order to free the juices and start the fermentation process. On and on they danced to the music of the balalaika and accordion pumping out melodies that have accompanied mustard harvest for centuries.

Finally, after several hours of dancing, everybody washed the mustard juice off their feet and went home – tired but happy. Now our work had just begun.

Over the next several months, we spent our days nursing the mustard through the long and careful process that turns raw mustard juice into the fine vintage product that gourmets value so highly. By fall, the mustard cellars were jammed with the freshly bottled product of a truly bounteous harvest.

Slowly, over the years the mustard would mature and develop to its peak of perfection, commanding premium prices on world markets. My Daddy’s brand, Redneck Poupon, won several gold medals at competitions and is remembered as one of the finest examples of American mustards.

I say remembered because, alas, Redneck Poupon is no longer produced. As has happened with so many carefully produced and handcrafted products, it became too expensive to produce mustard the old fashioned way.

Modern processing methods and automation created greater volume, but quality suffered so much that the only place Daddy could sell his mustard was to building contractors who used it as an ingredient in mustard plaster.Rather than to see his product go to such an ignominious end, Daddy quit the business.  Sorry to end on such a sad note, but the world isn’t always a friendly place.

I’ll leave you with one important thing I learned from Daddy.  Colonel Mustard did it in the library with a candlestick.

See Ya Around,
Buck

 

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