La moutarde me monte au nez
On the spice of life
In 1952, the very American-sounding French brand Frank’s Mister Mustard took out an unassuming ad in the pages of The New Yorker. “Try It Free!” the copy read. “Write name, address of your grocer; your name, address. We will send you a generous trial jar.”
Years later, Will Smith starred in the blockbuster Men in Black, in which a giant alien cockroach threatens humanity. Late in the movie, Smith’s character crushes a number of regular-size roaches with his boot. Even when insects are involved, American Humane has strong feelings about such things, so the actor actually stomped packets of mustard to mimic that familiar squish sound. “At the moment,” the movie director Barry Sonnenfeld explained back then, “there’s no mustard-defamation league.”
Sadly, the days of mail-order complimentary condiments are over, and in France something of a mustard-defamation league is forming. “Where’s Monsieur Mustardseed?” Bottom asks in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The answer in 2022, increasingly, is nowhere.
The average French citizen consumes nearly a kilogram of Dijon each year. “Many an unctuous sauce withers into insipidity without mustard,” the New York Times recently wrote, in an article about an ongoing supply chain snafu that’s left steak frites after steak frites wanting. The problem is that the vast majority of France’s supply of brown mustard seed comes from Canada, and yields for the August 2021–July 2022 season are expected to be significantly down compared with last year’s, according to an Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada report. It may sound as if 440 kilograms per hectare is a healthy harvest — especially when weighing one of the world’s smallest seeds — but that’s about half of what it was not long ago. And even though yields are expected to increase twelve months from now, overall exports aren’t.
Alberta and, especially, Saskatchewan grow most of this country’s mustard, but the southern prairie regions have lately suffered both drought and abnormally high temperatures. These “very unusual ‘production challenges,’ ” as the chair of the SaskMustard industry group has described them, have also affected yellow mustard seed, which is popular in places like Germany, Hungary, and Quebec, where companies are seeing an increased appetite for pungent-tasting pastes even as their primary ingredient is harder and harder to source. (The war in Ukraine, another mustard-producing powerhouse, hasn’t helped matters.)
Especially in Montreal, mustard is something of a foundational food. “You are a grain of mustard seed,” Barthélemy Vimont preached, as Maisonneuve founded the city in May 1642, “that shall rise and grow till its branches overshadow the earth.” The Jesuit missionary was alluding to a parable told in three books of the New Testament. “When it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs,” Jesus says of mustard seed in Matthew, “and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof.”
Jesus also likened the ancient spice to belief itself. “If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed,” he is quoted in the Gospel, “ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.” In this context, today’s shortage seems especially poignant. It’s difficult if not impossible to have faith or hope or optimism at such a fraught time — defined as it is by a plague of gun violence and the erosion of rights in the United States, by the devastating fires in British Columbia and southern Europe, by the record-breaking temperatures in the United Kingdom, by a global economy in which more and more people are falling further and further behind.
After her own fall, down the rabbit hole, Alice is warned that, like flamingos, mustard can bite. The moral of that, the Duchess tells her, is “Birds of a feather flock together.” The young girl points out that mustard isn’t a bird at all: “It’s a mineral, I think.” To which the obsequious Duchess quickly responds. “Of course it is; there’s a large mustard-mine near here,” she explains to Alice. “And the moral of that is —‘ The more there is of mine, the less there is of yours.’ ”
It’s not just Dijon that we’re missing. Many of us have a deep sense that there’s just a lot of less at the moment: less nature and biodiversity, less stability and promise, less free thought and middle ground, less civility and nuance.
“Why then, the mustard without the beef,” Grumio offers Katharina in The Taming of the Shrew. Indeed, the world truly is upside down and humanity truly is in trouble when things are the other way around: plenty of beefs to be had, with little in the way of that wonderfully symbolic accompaniment.