Mustard man

A Q&A with the founder of Lusty Monk

I'm a mustard man, not a ketchup man.

This is yet another preference I inherited from my mother. Mama put mustard in her deviled eggs and potato salad. She put it in a cold shrimp dish she made with lots of capers that I still crave. And she made her own "Chinese mustard," so fiery it produced lots of tears. She made another type for corned beef. And I remember her getting very agitated when her Burger King Whopper did not have mustard on it. "Lady, this ain't no hot dog joint," the counter clerk told her.

Mustard is probably the world's oldest condiment. Every culture since the ancient Egyptians has used mustard seed in one way or another. To Kelly Davis of Weaverville, N.C., just north of Asheville, the most interesting thing about mustard is its reputation as an aphrodisiac that was once made by the people you'd least expect to need one or to be promoting one.

Davis calls her mustard Lusty Monk. The name was inspired by her discovery that some monasteries in medieval Europe became specialists in mustard-making. Her mustard, available straight up or blended with chipotle seasonings, is labeled with a monk who looks at once pious and guiltlessly satiated. (Actually, this tradition continues, even in this country. Benedictine Sisters of Mt. Angel in Oregon produce a popular condiment called Monastery Mustard.)

Lusty Monk, which I sampled at Cabbagetown Market, is among the best mustards I've ever tasted. It reminds me a bit of German varieties because of its slightly vinegary taste and almost chunky texture. I recently chatted with Davis via e-mail.

How did you get into making mustard?

I was a history major in college, and I'm a cookbook junkie, especially if they're about traditional foods. And I like to putter in the kitchen. In some of my cookbook travels, I hit on an old mustard recipe, and I thought to myself, "That's weird, people don't really make mustard at home anymore." So I decided to try it. I liked it. Started taking it to potlucks. They liked it.

Then I was doing "mustard research" and came upon the tidbit about the monks who weren't allowed to eat mustard because it was an aphrodisiac, and that cracked me up. So I named the mustard "Lusty Monk." Then Eric Stevens, who is a brilliant, quirky designer friend of mine ... came up with the logo, which was about five years ago.

I was giving it as Christmas gifts, etc., mostly as a lark, and then I got a job beertending part-time at Green Man Brewing, one of Asheville's local breweries. It's a tasting room, really, and all we serve are the six beers we make there and pretzels. Just pretzels. So, since pretzels are boring, I started giving out mustard on the side, and it just sort of snowballed. My brother and sister decided to invest in the business, and I got started making it in one of those incubator kitchens for fledgling food entrepreneurs, Blue Ridge Food Ventures. A couple months ago I got my own commercial kitchen, which is wonderful and I'm starting to get some momentum. It's really fun.

What's involved in making mustard?

There are some tricks to it, but it's pretty basic. You grind the mustard seeds and add an acidic liquid. Some people use wines or beers, even liquor, but the main acidic ingredient is vinegar. I use apple cider vinegar. And I've got a monster immersion blender that's a blast to use.

Why does the world need another mustard?

It doesn't. It just needs a better mustard.

What's unique about your mustard?

Lusty Monk is the closest thing you can get to fresh-ground mustard without grinding it yourself. That's why we sell it in the refrigerator case – because it preserves the heat and the flavor. The volatile oils in the seeds are what give it that potent kick. In Britain they used to grind their mustard fresh every day, because they wanted that pungent horseradish-y punch. It's addictive. Also, it goes great with beer.

Presumably you enjoy making mustard. What do you find pleasurable about it?

It's tactile. I get to grind things and blend things and fill things and label things. And there's a certain delicious satisfaction in taking something that you made yourself, delivering it, and getting paid for it. Also, with Eric's brilliant help, we've got fun words to play with like "lusty" and all the irreverent tongue-in-cheek stuff. When I tell people that the name of the company is Lusty Monk, I usually get a double-take. Many people start laughing, and the conversation quite frequently degenerates into the ribald. You gotta love a job that makes people laugh.

What did you do before this work?

Freelance proofreading, editing, and I was a "book buyer" for a book wholesaler for a while. Working for the wholesaler, I got to visit Atlanta quite a bit, and loved it.

Is your business limited to mustard?

Yes. But we're having quite a lot of fun with the bumper stickers.

Will mustard bring peace to the Middle East?

Yes. The problem in the Middle East is that people take themselves entirely too seriously. Irreverence is the solution.

You can find Lusty Monk around town at Star Provisions, Belly General Store, Cabbagetown Market/Little's Grill, Candler Park Market, Savor Specialty Foods and Sawicki's Meat, Seafood and More. The Mercantile, a new grocery opening next month in Candler Park, will stock it, too.Finally, you may soon be able to swill it at Manuel's Tavern in a "Bloodlust," a Bloody Mary that substitutes the mustard for horseradish.

Oh, it's absolutely true that the stuff is delicious as a dip for pretzels. I used to eat mustard that way as a kid when my father took me to the "club" upstairs from Sonneson's Grocery outside Philly. Who knew mustard would evoke so many pleasant memories and turn me into a sex machine, too?

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