The History of Mustard as a Food

Mustard was around thousands of years before Grey Poupon

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Mustard, a member of the Brassica family of plants, bears tiny, round, edible seeds and tasty leaves. Its English name is derived from a contraction of the Latin mustum ardens meaning "burning must." This is a reference to the spicy heat of the crushed mustard seeds and the French practice of mixing the ground seeds with must, the fresh, unfermented juice of wine grapes.

The condiment called mustard is made from the seeds of the mustard plant. The seeds don't release their flavor until they are coarsely cracked or finely ground, after which they are mixed with a liquid to create prepared mustard.

History of Mustard as a Condiment

The culinary history of mustard as a condiment is ancient. Prepared mustard dates back thousands of years to the early Romans, who used to grind mustard seeds and mix them with wine to create a paste which was probably not very different from the prepared mustards we know today. Mustard was popular in Europe before the development of the Asian spice trade and was widely appreciated long before pepper.

The Romans brought the mustard seed to Gaul, where it was planted alongside grapevines, and it quickly became a popular condiment there as well. French monasteries cultivated and sold mustard as early as the ninth century, and the condiment was for sale in Paris by the 13th century. 

In the 1770s, mustard took a modern turn when Maurice Grey and Antoine Poupon introduced the world to Grey Poupon Dijon mustard. The site of their original store that opened in Dijon in 1777 is still standing (today it is occupied by another historic mustard producer called Maille). 

In 1866, Jeremiah Colman, founder of Colman's Mustard of England, was appointed mustard-maker to Queen Victoria. Colman perfected the technique of grinding mustard seeds into a fine powder without overheating it. This was an important development because if mustard is overheated or exposed to too much air, much of the flavor evaporates.

Main Species of Mustard

There are about 40 species of mustard plants. The three species that are used to make mustard are the black, brown, and white mustards. White mustard, which originated in the Mediterranean, is the antecedent of the bright yellow, hot dog mustard we are all familiar with. Brown mustard from the Himalayas is familiar to many as Chinese restaurant mustard, and it serves as the base for most European and American mustards as well. Black mustard originated in the Middle East and in Asia Minor, where it is still popular. Edible mustard greens are a different species of mustard altogether. The cultivation of mustard, which is thought to have originated in China and Japan, has focused primarily on the seeds, not the greens. 

Medicinal History of Mustard

Long ago, mustard was considered a medicinal plant rather than a culinary one. In the sixth century B.C., Greek scientist Pythagoras used mustard as a remedy for scorpion stings. A hundred years later, Hippocrates used mustard in medicines and poultices, and mustard plasters were applied to treat toothaches and a number of other ailments.

Religious History of Mustard

The mustard seed is a prominent reference for those of the Christian faith, exemplifying something that is initially small and insignificant but which, when planted and nurtured, grows in strength and power. Pope John XII (pope from 955 to 964) was so fond of mustard that he created a new Vatican position—Grand Moutardier du Pape (grand mustard-maker to the pope)—and promptly filled the post with his nephew. His nephew was from the city of Dijon, in the region of Burgundy, which soon became the mustard center of the world.

Modern Mustard Culture

We all know that losers and quitters can't "cut the mustard" (that is, live up to the challenge), and perhaps the reason ballpark mustard is so popular is that pitchers are said to apply mustard to their fastballs to get strikeouts. In another field, the disabling and even lethal chemical weapon known as mustard gas is a synthetic concoction that takes the volatile nature of mustard oil to a whole other level.