“Don’t want no mustard,” I say, sounding like I am 4.
Then she stands over me, to monitor the mayo. By the time the sandwich is made, there is not enough mayo to smell, let alone see, and she is happy because I am not.
“You can have all the mustard you want,” she says to my back, and my head fills with voices telling me to do terrible things.
I wonder what kind of judge I will get at my trial.
How much you want to bet that she will be a mustard person, too?
I guess it is a weakness, a sin, like sloth or various forms of coveting, but like most bad things that Southerners do, I shall blame it on my heritage.
I grew up in the Alabama highlands, among working-class Southerners who never got anywhere close to the aristocracy unless we were putting in their transmission. It is a culture of mayonnaise, as much as moonshine, hard work, football, stock car racing and the Congregational Holiness Church. People say it is that white whiskey, that spirit distilled by my grandfather in these mist-shrouded hills, that runs in our veins, but my doctor will tell you it is mayo, with some smidgen of bacon grease, that really trickles through.
I know mayonnaise has old-world origins and world-wide appeal, that people like it in Fargo on canned pears, and in France, on fries. I had it in Addis Ababa, at the airport in Amsterdam, and on a chicken sandwich in Islamabad. There are many popular theories of its origin, that the Romans and Egyptians used some combination of oil and eggs to mask the flavor of spoiled food, but the most popular is, of course, that we blame the French. But unlike tight pants and pointy shoes, they got this right. It is believed the recipe was acquired from the town of Mahón in Menorca in 1756, after a victory over the British by Louis-Francois-Armand du Plessis de Richelieu. The sauce mahonesa in Spanish became mayonnaise. Food historians still fight over this, mostly in relative obscurity.
The French can claim it, but we know it is Southern by the grace of God. If you think I am overstating this, you are clearly from some place with excellent ice fishing, where people know how to spell Z-A-M-B-O-N-I without having to look it up.
In the Great Depression, mayonnaise was more plentiful – and cheaper – in some pockets of the Appalachians than lard and other cooking oil. My grandmother fried chicken in it on a wood stove outside Rome, Georgia, and if that is a rural myth it is a first-rate one. Try that in mustard, and see where it gets you.
My wife, as a young girl in Memphis in the 1920s ... I mean the 1970s, covered her head in a gooey helmet of mayonnaise as a hair conditioner. It might have had some slight effect on the luster of her hair, but she walked around for days smelling like egg salad. (I think that this is why she is a mustard person now, but she says no, that it was because her grandmother believed that mayonnaise should be left at room temperature, which indoors in Memphis in summer was about 125. “My mother told me, ‘Whatever you do, don’t eat the mayonnaise,’” she said. I guess fear will turn you off anything.)
When I was a boy, mothers used mayonnaise on burns, like petroleum jelly, and to cool sunburn, but never on bee stings, on which they used wet snuff. Women in my childhood used it to smother ticks, especially when they were out of Dippity Doo. They suffocated head lice with it, sometimes holding it on with plastic wrap, or a crown of tin foil.
But mostly, we just ate it. We ate it in creamy cole slaws, and mountains of potato salad, and daubed on top of gelatin molds at the Morrison’s Cafeteria.
We spread it on white bread, because it was the only sliced bread we knew, and made sandwiches from sliced tomatoes, salt and pepper. Or, we layered on sliced banana. To this day, I think that sandwich, with a handful of Golden Flake barbecued potato chips and a glass of milk, is pretty fine living, and have it every chance I get, which means when my wife is at work.
Without it, we would have no BLTs, no pimento cheese, no deviled eggs. Chicken salad, shrimp salad, crab salad, lobster rolls, all would lie sadly on their plates, naked and forlorn.
Even my wife, the mustard dictator, will give me that.
She likes chicken salad, she says, but always asks the waiter, “Now, is it real mayonnaise-y?”
I hang my head.
I think, finally, she has won.
I make the best cole slaw on this earth. It is simple, with fresh red cabbage, and good carrots. I use real mayonnaise, but mix in black pepper, and garlic, and a dash of onion salt. It is delicious with pinto beans and ham, or beef short ribs with potatoes and onions, or just a few captain’s wafers and a glass of tea.
At least, I used to make the best.
My wife has insisted that I now use only low-fat mayo, and that, of course, is crazy talk. It does not taste the same, or even look the same in the bowl. There is no joy in it anymore.
I understand how it would make a slaw or salad less deadly for a 51-year-old man, but it seems so absurd to use low-fat mayo on a ham and cheese, or Philly cheese steak, or an egg salad sandwich, like ordering two Cheese Whoppers and a diet Coke.
People tell me I need to grow. They tell me I need to let loose of the old ways, and embrace this time. I have tried. I have.