December 9, 2023 | Rome, Italy

The taste of mustard

By |2023-11-06T17:12:45+01:00November 6th, 2023|Features Archive|
Mustard: something that has a bite

s I was sitting at the table, someone said, “Have I ever steered you wrong?” I looked up to see my father tottering in the entrance way.  I gazed at him, but said nothing.  A thick cheese-drenched hamburger stuffed with grilled onions sat steaming on my plate, courtesy of my mother.  Anxious to dig in, I began pounding the bottom of the Heinz bottle I’d retrieved from the bowels of the fridge.  The ketchup was still ice-cold.

Like an old drunk, it wasn’t budging.

From out of nowhere, my father produced a tiny jar of spicy brown mustard, concealed in his palm like precious contraband. He sat down and then slid the jar to me so hard that it clanged against my plate.  “Live a little,” he whispered.

It was another of my father’s fleeting attempts to bond with me.

I didn’t know which was more disconcerting, my father showing up for dinner for the first time in weeks, bombed, as usual, or his bizarre offering of culinary advice. To my eight-year-old palate the idea of putting mustard on a burger seemed incongruous — a crime against nature. Ketchup and hamburgers were inseparable; mustard was strictly for hot dogs. I shook my head defiantly and seized my bread knife in the hopes of coaxing some of the icy ketchup out of the bottle and on to my waiting plate.

My father laughed and lit up one of his unfiltered cigarettes. As usual, he was enjoying my discomfort.

Steer me wrong? As the question hung in mid-air, I suddenly recalled our family trip to Italy after I’d turned four. My father had rented a yacht and a makeshift crew to port-hop along the west coast, stopping in marvelous old fishing towns like Portofino. It was an indelible voyage through time and space and one of the few times I remember him being sober for a significant stretch. But the trip was filled with one mishap after another. My father ignored the advice of local advisors and decided to hire a crew of rag-tag Romani to plan and steer our voyage. The crew promptly guided us into a fierce squall and our boat nearly capsized from the huge swells that sent enormous waves crashing over the bow.

To my eight-year-old palate the idea of putting mustard on a burger seemed incongruous — a crime against nature. Ketchup and hamburgers were inseparable; mustard was strictly for hot dogs.

As we scurried into the safety of the hold, I was suddenly pitched off the starboard side of the boat.  At the last moment, my father grabbed my arm (I was literally flying overboard) and slung me back onto the deck. It was a remarkable stroke of luck, but seemed to sum up my father’s impact on our family: recklessly exposing us to unnecessary danger, and then trying, often brilliantly, to save us from the worst.

Even when the sea was calm, the boat – and my father’s judgment – could prove perilous. Manolo, our spacey first mate, had a bad habit of leaving the manhole grate that covered the stairs down to the engine room propped open.  It was a good six foot drop from the main deck to the bottom of the hull, and I twice had the misfortune of falling through that gaping hole.  It was a minor miracle that I never broke my back or cracked my skull during these falls. Each time I became quite hysterical, bawling uncontrollably until the crew passed me to my father who, seeing that I was no worse for wear, rubbed my quaking shoulders and managed to calm me down.

After the first incident, Manolo was beside himself and decided to abandon ship, even though my father, being the man he was, said all was forgiven and begged him to stay. And so Manolo stayed, but in spite of being genuinely repentant, he failed to mend his ways.

There were other near-tragedies that occurred during that remarkable trip – at least they seemed that way to me. Once, my father and I rowed to shore, just the two of us, and the surf was something fierce. My father pulled the boat up on the dry sand and suddenly realized that he’d lost his silver diamond-studded wedding ring. I saw his panicked look and we raced back to probe and thrash at the wet sucking sand. But to no avail. Again, I started bawling my eyes out and my father, taken aback at the intensity of my response, laughed a little and tried to reassure me that it wasn’t the end of the world. But somehow I sensed that it was, and I kept up my wailing until my father took my hand and we quietly walked along the shoreline, saying nothing, just listening to the plaintive cries of the sea gulls floating overhead.

Despite these forbidding incidents, I was never actually afraid of the water.  Even at that tender age I had learned to draw solace from the rhythmic melancholy of the waves ceaselessly crashing upon the shore in a futile attempt to reclaim the territory they long ago ceded to dry land.

Sometimes the waves managed to spread their rushing foam the full length of the beach, occasionally catching a sand castle builder or wader unprepared, before slinking back into the sea to savor a pyrrhic victory. I sensed that the sea could be angry and jealous, but also gentle and giving.  It was important not to get on the sea’s bad side. It could turn against you if you weren’t vigilant, or simply got caught up, as I had, in one of its recurring temper tantrums.

Already superstitious, I figured that my father had lost his ring – “our” ring, for it was a symbol of the marriage that had produced me – for a reason. It was a sacrifice my father had been forced to pay for having cheated Poseidon of a life he’d desired and placed a claim on. My life.

Many years later, when I swam in a cool lake in upstate New York with a fellow graduate school student and friend, I recalled another episode in Italy when my father and I had paddled ashore. Safe in my life preserver, with my father beside me, I slowly paddled from our moored boat to the soft and glistening crystalline sand. It was a small cove and the swells from the tide barely made a ripple.

That day on the lake, as I bobbed up and down, my school chum noticed a sudden, overwhelming change in my mood and felt compelled to remark that he had never seen me so joyful before.  “I haven’t had a chance to swim in a while,” I confessed, without really acknowledging his insight. The memory stored in my body must have come rushing to the fore, and simply burst through the layers of ersatz manhood I had built up over the years in an effort to present myself as composed and well-adjusted, if not altogether inured to life’s blows.

But that memory also brought with it a storehouse of grief and sorrow which caused me to spiral down into a depression, for which I had to be hospitalized. The actual trigger, though, was a failed romance with the dean’s secretary a few months earlier. I adored her, if only because, in her presence, I felt like I was happily paddling again — sans marriage, dissertation, or worldly cares of any kind. She wasn’t my father, but she might as well have been. She elicited the same deep libidinal, psychic, and involuntary responses from me that my father had, and clearly I still craved them. When my would-be paramour realized what a mess I was, she recoiled, and I was left with nothing — only myself, which wasn’t enough to sustain me once the outer riggings of my empty vessel failed me.

When my father appeared at the dinner table that night, I didn’t know it was the last time I would ever see him alive. Two weeks later, he turned up dead with a single shot through the heart. Detectives found him slumped in the driver’s seat of his gray Jaguar-Bentley on a misty fall morning in Rock Creek Park near the horse stables just a mile from our home. It was there my father had once kept his horse, Silky Jet. The horse we’d once ridden together, me in his lap holding determinedly to the saddle horn. There was no note, and though my mother harbored her suspicions, based on a tip from a family friend, there was no clear-cut evidence of foul play.

We kept the truth hidden from the rest of the family, of course. It was a sudden heart attack. Totally unexpected, we said. A suicide was much too much for a family of Jewish Holocaust survivors to endure, so we never told them the truth. My father’s sister, a born snoop, had her suspicions. After the funeral, she tried to gently probe into the matter but one fierce and angry look from my mother scared her into silence. She knew her younger brother, in whom their parents had invested all their hopes and dreams, had a drinking problem, and was probably bipolar. She was right, of course.   In the end, a wave of dark neurons as powerful as the sea crashed into his brain, overwhelming him.

Already superstitious, I figured that my father had lost his ring – “our” ring, for it was a symbol of the marriage that had produced me – for a reason.

That night at the dinner table, I had a premonition of pending tragedy. When I finally agreed, against my own better judgment, to slather some of my father’s mustard on my hamburger and took my first hopeful bite, it tasted so sour that I nearly gagged. I ended up spitting out the half-eaten burger morsel into my napkin, and set it aside on my plate. My father’s crestfallen look sent deep shivers through me. I had never seen such a despairing expression before – certainly not in my father. I quickly reassured him that it wasn’t him, it was me. Motioning for his mustard jar, I gently wiped a fresh stream of the ugly brown liquid across the full length of my burger and dug in. It was as sour-tasting and ghastly as ever.

“Dad, I was wrong,” I said, brave face and all. “This really isn’t that bad!”

I never looked my father in the eye.  Maybe he believed me, maybe he didn’t. Maybe I could never erase the impression from his mind that his performance as a father and husband wasn’t all that it might have been.  But at that moment, I tried, however insincerely. I never wanted to judge my father, and as far as I could tell, neither did my mother – certainly not as harshly as my father ended up judging himself. We sensed his shame but felt utterly powerless to relieve it.

Decades have passed since my father’s death. I’ve recovered from my recurring bouts with depression, embarked on a successful professional career, and found a path to internal stability. Still, whenever life threatens to become gloomy or deeply disagreeable, I recall that bitter, gut-wrenching, sour taste of mustard. For me it symbolizes all that threatens to twist the natural goodness and beauty of the world into darkness and ruin.

As a happy survivor, I have no desire to challenge the culinary universe, anger the gods, or tempt Fate ever again. Mustard has never touched another burger of mine. Hopefully, it will never touch my children’s.

About the Author:

Stewart Lawrence is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer.