Mustard, a Christmas Story
It all started two years ago when after we’d already had dinner we went to a Christmas party hosted by the parents of one of my wife’s students. It was in a lovely house with multiple staircases, tall ceilings, a great kitchen, and possibly secret rooms. When I saw the enormous spread on the dining room table I knew right away I was destined to eat a second dinner. What I didn’t know, but would know as soon as I got to tasting stuff, was that one particular item amongst the many would change my life.
There it was, next to a Ruth Reichl-worthy baked ham the size of a husband pillow: a jar of “CRACOVIA Super Extra Hot Mustard,” provided, I’m sure, as an accompaniment to the ham but meant only for people who like spicy food because when Cracovia says “Extra Hot,” Cracovia means Extra Hot.
I’ve never cooked a ham and, though I eat it on occasion, it’s usually in the form of thin sliced deli meat. A good baked ham is an entirely different animal that I do not encounter often enough. So when I saw it on this table with a long serrated knife casually placed along an arc of its enormous round serving plate, and when I saw the serration marks on the ham and realized this was an opportunity to have a slice of ham with any thickness I desired – I made myself a slice, dabbed some mustard onto it, and, well, that’s when the second dinner really got going.
My wife’s co-teacher and her husband were there. I don’t know the husband very well nor does he know me that well – we’d only met once or twice before (nice guy). But I'm pretty sure that by the time we parted ways that night, he had to have established one certain opinion about me, based on my behavior: that I can drone on for too long about a rather boring topic, such as a mustard. I’m not sure how many ways I tried to get him to try it or if he did try it because I don’t remember what I said. I was in the throes of a true mustard high.
When we left, according to my wife, Kristin, most of the car ride home involved me asking: “Can you find out from her where she got that mustard from? I have to get that mustard. Maybe it’s at Eagle Provisions. Do you think it’s at Eagle Provisions? Can you ask her?”
“I’ll try, I’ll try,” Kristin said.
"Okay, thanks. 'Cause I really want that mustard.”
I asked her about it for at least the rest of the week. Here’s what I probably said: “Did you ask her about the mustard?”
I’m sure I was driving her crazy.
But Kristin did me such a solid and actually asked her student’s mom about the mustard. Lo and behold, a few weeks later she came home not with the information, which would have been the best thing, but with a jar of the product. The mother/party host had gone out and gotten for me my very own jar of Cracovia mustard. Unfortunately, she didn’t tell Kristin where it was from – and there was no way I was going to talk Kristin into asking her about it again.
After I consumed the one jar, which based on my present day rate of consumption (yes, I have it now!), must have been about two weeks, I tried to find it on my own. I called many Polish stores. None had it. I even drove over to the aforementioned Eagle Provisions, who on the phone had said they didn’t carry it but I didn’t want to believe them because it's such a big store and I had to see for myself.
Unbeknownst to my wife, that empty jar lived in our refrigerator for over a year. The information of the mustard was too precious to trust to a piece of paper or a file within the computer.
One day a few weeks ago it occurred to me that I should ask our Polish housekeeper. She’s super-nice and has asked me in the past for tips on shopping for food. That’s an open door, right? She told me that she knows a place where they might actually have it and that she would look.
The next time she came she brought me a mustard that was not the right mustard – what a sweetheart. It was a good mustard and I thanked her and paid her for it. One should never allow one's madness for a mustard (or any other thing) get in the way of proper manners.
The next time I saw her, which was two weeks later, she said, “I have something for you,” and took from a brown paper bag a single jar of the mustard. Here’s what it says:
CRACOVIA Super Extra Hot Mustard
Musztarda “Piekielna” - Nawet Drwala Powala!
The translation from Bing Babelfish is a little off, but it gives the idea: Mustard "Hell"-Even Lumberjack Knocks!
She offered to pick up more for me if I ever wanted more. The store that carries it is next door to where she lives.
Upon careful inspection of the label, I realize that, ingredients-wise, this mustard is not something that I would normally gravitate toward. Considering that many good mustards contain only a few ingredients and nothing artificial, some of the items listed on the Cracovia label raise flags for me, including: modified corn starch, frozen yolk, flavour, potassium sorbate, sodium benzoate, locust bean gum, colour, calcium disodium EDTA. Black strap molasses, yes, and that’s pretty cool – but I don’t think that this mustard would ever make it onto the shelves of the Park Slope Food Coop.
There’s a lesson to be learned here. Sometimes, one must excuse oneself from self-imposed rules of food conduct and eat certain foods because they’re fantastic. That’s how I am able to sleep at night. This mustard achieves high level hotness both in one's mouth and in one's nose. Why should I live without it?
Still wary of crossing any boundary with our really nice housekeeper I decided it wouldn’t be wrong to ask her for some more mustard since the store is right where she lives. I thought it would make a good Christmas present for certain friends and I figured I could use another half-dozen jars. She said yes.
She texted me while we were eating dinner, in fact just as I was dipping fry after fry into the mustard. She had mixed news. She went back and got me more jars of mustard but only four, because that’s all the store had.
So, you certain friends who I imagine are reading this. Understand that I may wish to give you a jar of mustard but that maybe I can’t because I don’t have enough. If you do receive one from me as a gift you should know that you’re superspecialimporant because out of the four I’m going to get, I’m keeping one for myself since my own jar is more than halfway finished.
I realize that with my anticipated large scale consumption of this mustard I cannot ask my housekeeper to forever be my source. I need to break free and pick up my own Cracovia Super Extra Hot Mustard. And even though sharing the location of the store may put you and I at odds with each other, both of us coveting what might be a limited supply of this spicy yellow gold, I’ve decided to share the location with you here.
Gala Apple, at 4112 18th Avenue, in Brooklyn, NY.
So again, if you like mustard and you like spicy mustard, then this mustard, I swear, beats the pants off – as a dipping sauce for fries or ham or turkey – any other mustard I’ve ever had. In fact, as a dipping condiment this mustard has overtaken Pio Pio’s legendary green sauce and become my now absolute favorite condiment anywhere.
Make sure, if you’re going to get some, that you call first to check that they have it in stock. You never know with me around!