The Mustard Chronicles

When I was growing up in Philadelphia’s infamous Kensington neighborhood I would observe my father while seated at the kitchen table take his knife, dip it in a glob of yellow Gulden’s Mustard and carefully slide the ever-present English Peas onto his knife then slide the knife down the outer tine of his fork to carefully line the peas in formation before opening his mouth to insert them down the hatch. I watched this sacrament every night; well, most nights when he was home from work or play in the nasty streets of our neighborhood. I watched in horror, recoiling from the smell of the mustard and the ugly color of the stuff. I hated it even as I hid the red beats under the white mashed potatoes on my plate thinking I was fooling my parents by cloaking the red sauce in a swirling mound of mashed and beat up potatoes. They were not fooled. My dad’s mustard ritual went on throughout my youth. As I became older and wiser I would carefully plan then execute a searing criticism of the pea thing, sorting through my evolving vocabulary to find the right words to describe my disgust at this practice. That was usually not a smart thing to do since my father’s limited vocabulary, delivered in a combination of Midlands English and New York City patois, was nevertheless rough-edged, elegant and oddly compelling. Even though I viewed myself as a tough-ass Philly kid, he could scare the shit out of me, rendering me not so tough. At the dinner table a mustard phobia took hold of my young soul. And it got even weirder.

Somehow (before I became older and wiser) I befriended Mustard. He was my imaginary friend with whom I probably shared many secrets that I wouldn’t have shared with my non-imaginary friends from the neighborhood or school. Much later on in life my mother would tell me that she heard me talking to my imaginary friend, causing more than a little concern at her end of the spectrum. Apparently in response to her question, “…who are you talking to?” I responded with the name “Mustard,” which caused her to fall into an uncontrollable laughing fit. Apparently I wasn’t amused and stalked off muttering to myself. So, I embraced the name that I so hated. I guess this friendship lasted until I was old enough to run the streets with my non-imaginary friends, or until I was old enough to run the bases at the Black Diamond ball field and establish myself – even at a young age – as the soon-to-be “Fastest white boy in Philly,” tested at the track meets to come. By then Mustard had become a non-friend but I have never forgotten the dude and still wonder how that all came about. But I still hate mustard! I mean, really hate it.

Over the years beginning with travels in the Navy and continuing throughout my professional musical life I have learned to love a variety of food (and wine, but that’s another story); exotic fish dishes from Indonesia served by beautiful Kebaya-clad women, elegant shabu-shabu from Japan served by mysterious kimono-clad waitresses and Pho served by, you guessed it, gorgeous Vietnamese ladies wearing flowing ao-dai. There were, of course, instances when men served the food but I have conveniently forgotten what they were wearing. I have developed a pretty good pallet for the foods of the world and claim real friendships with some fantastic cooks, including my wife Laurel. But no mustard! Everyone within my personal orbit understands and respects my weird phobia of mustard, even as they have tried to introduce non-Gulding mustard to me. It doesn’t matter; I do not want the stuff near me. I have been known to replace any utensil that was used to spread mustard, even Moutarde de Charroux with a “clean” one. It’s that bad I’m afraid. Given this brief historical account of the dreaded substance why would I use the name “The Mustard Chronicles” for this blog? It happened at Lake Tahoe.

Every year Laurel and I meet up with a group of close friends at a place that offers a quiet retreat from our daily lives in a house large enough to comfortably situate five couples and a kitchen/eating area to support five picky cooks. Of course there have to be other inducements as well such as hiking trails, lakes for swimming and boating, performances of theatrical and musical events and, when possible, visits to wineries. (This year we traveled to Placerville to visit a couple of Sierra Nevada Foothill wineries coming away with some killer Zinfandels and Syrahs.) These yearly summer communes – our version of the “Big Chill” – have taken the group to Canyon de Chelly in Arizona; Moab, Utah; Albuquerque/Santa Fe, Taos and Silver City New Mexico; Cotati and Point Reyes, California; and this year South Lake Tahoe, California. The “Gang of Ten” (we’re working on a more “formal” name) has much in common but none more so than all are related to the legacy and history of the Relâche Ensemble in Philadelphia. I, as its founder and long-time executive/artistic director, Laurel Wyckoff as its principal flutist and director of education and outreach, Werner Strobel as its first audio engineer and audio archivist, Joe Kasinskas and Guy Klucevsek as composers, performers and music advisors, Bridget Kasinskas as guest violinist, Arthur Stidfole as development director and music advisor and Kathryn Bauer, Jan Klucevsek and Kathy Diak as friends of the ensemble and supporting spouses. During their Philadelphia lives Kathryn worked in theater, Kathy as an administrative counselor. Jan Klucevsek has toiled away as a loyal librarian in Staten Island where she and Guy live. I can’t say it’s a diverse group, at least in terms of racial diversity but it is an ethnically diverse group and collectively damn smart. Conversations might range from opinions about a performance or event from our past lives to current political issues or, at least in Guy’s case, why he will forever be a New York Mets fan. And then there are the ever-present discussions about food: the likes and dislikes that each member of the gang has and why we collectively defer to Laurel as the chief kitchen sister. Oddly enough the dreaded subject of mustard never came up in these discussions until, as you might have guessed, this year. And it placed me front-and-center in the discussion.

I opened our well-stocked refrigerator to retrieve one of the wines that were chilling down. As I reached in I noticed that someone had put a jar of brown mustard next to them. It was actually touching a carefully selected California Coastal Sauvignon Blanc that I often buy for our house wine at home in New Mexico! I was horrified. I surreptitiously slid the mustard jar to the back of the refrigerator, out of sight and, at least, out of my mind. Laurel observed me doing this, something she has observed on many occasions at home and, seeing an opening to chide me for my mustard phobia, let loose so that everyone within earshot – mostly everyone in the gang – heard her. That led to the inevitable questions culminating in “…what’s up? With intense pressure from Laurel I came clean and told of my imaginary friend and having to endure my father’s pea and mustard act. After carefully explaining how my olfactory perception goes a bit nutty when mustard is around the gang seemed to understand. There were a few smirks of course but everyone seemed to get a kick out of my situation and agreed to at least warn me when they were about to open a jar of the stuff so I could bolt from the room, making sure I had a glass of wine securely in hand to settle my mind. Later on at dinner I suggested that we – as a group – document the history of our yearly gatherings, something that everyone embraced. I then suggested that we create a blog and customize it so that everyone could contribute their thoughts and observations to it. I offered to serve as editor-in-chief, blogmeister if you will. We had a plan going forward. Joe Kasinskas then asked if anyone had a name for the blog. I saw an opening and put forth “The Mustard Chronicles.” I figured if I am to overcome this weird fear then I should confront it by celebrating the name “mustard!” After the laughter ended we agreed to the name: The Mustard Chronicles.

Since that time there have been no further entries. I think that’s good since every entry would have to have the word “mustard” posted at the beginning. Whew!

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