From Maine, a Better Yellow Mustard


Photo by WordRidden/Flickr CC

Given all the really great goings on in the food world these days, something as seemingly simple as mustard would be easy to miss. A mention of "regular old yellow mustard" probably would initiate as much notice as snow flurries here in Ann Arbor this week--we see 'em but they're so much the norm that we'd probably pay next to no attention.

But given that we work so hard around here not to miss too much that has to do with good food and given that we serve as many corned beef and pastrami sandwiches as we do, not to mention all those (ground-fresh-daily-from-Niman-Ranch beef) burgers we grill up at the Roadhouse, taking yellow mustard for granted would be...not a really smart thing to do, if you know what I mean. Attention to detail--unglamorous as it so often is--is where it's at. Which is why, if you--like me in years past--have every fallen prey to the understandable but inaccurate assumption that all yellow mustard is sort of, kind of, pretty much, mostly the same--you should definitely reach for a bottle of Raye's.

I suppose you won't be shocked to discover we've tracked down a yellow mustard that's made by some of the most mustard-passionate people in the country: the folks at Raye's in the tiny town of Eastport, Maine. I'm embarrassed to say that I've still never been to Maine but one day soon I'm gonna get there. When I do, I'm going to be going a ways out of my way to get to Raye's, because if you look at the map, you'll see pretty quickly Eastport isn't exactly on the way to anywhere either of us is likely to driving in the next few years. Even from famous Maine high spots like Bar Harbor and Portland it's a long ways to go--Eastport looks to be almost as far north up the coast as one could go without actually crossing the border into Canada; as per its name it's actually the easternmost city in the U.S.

If you haven't 'til now paid attention to the Raye's yellow mustard it's worth taking a minute to appreciate it. You really can taste the difference.

In fact, Raye's seems like, for me at least, the number one reason to really make the trip. The town has fewer than 2,000 people in it so it's not all that likely you'll be going to visit friends or relatives either. The "town" is actually made up of four islands--maybe I'll market it as the Venice of the Northeast and we'll say that mustard making is to Eastport but glass-blowing might be to the city of the canals.

Regardless of reputation, Raye's is the only traditional stone mustard mill left in the U.S., and as Karen Raye, who runs it along with Kevin Raye, said, "It's probably the only one left in the Western Hemisphere." The mill was built 109 years ago, back at the turn of the previous century, by her husband's great-great uncle, J.W. While the original Mr. Raye might wig out over cell phones and the Internet if he were to reappear here at the end of 2009, it sounds like he'd likely be pretty at home if he were to go back to work at Raye's next Wednesday. "If he were here today," Karen told me, "he'd see the mill pretty much as it was working when he built it. We're still using the original stones," she said, referring to the eight, 2,000-pound, quartz wheels that were quarried, carved, and carted over from France in 1900.

The mustard-making process today, as it did in J.W.'s world, starts with whole mustard seed. By contrast, most other commercial mustards nowadays start with already processed mustard powder. And, as you already know, Raye's work is all based on cold stone milling of that mustard seed (same simple, old-fashioned approach one would want to have with any other good quality milling of corn, oats, etc.).

As the seed passes through each of the four set of stones the resulting paste gets ever creamier, which explains why the finished product you and I get out of the Raye's jar is so smooth. To protect the cold milled seed, the Rayes use cold water from their 400--foot well. Cooler water takes longer but protects the flavor of the seed. (Most all commercial producers today use heat in the production process to speed production and increase yields.) The mustard is then allowed to age for a few weeks before it gets packed up.

If you haven't 'til now paid attention to the Raye's yellow mustard it's worth taking a minute to appreciate it. You really can taste the difference. If you doubt me just try a spoonful of it next to some standard supermarket offering from, say, French's. Commercial yellow mustard, to me, consistently tastes remarkably thin and watery compared to the Raye's. I doubt I'd have complained about supermarket mustard if I weren't paying attention, but tasting the two side by side, the different is pretty darned distinctive.

The Raye's really is darned creamy, with a mellow but mouth-filling flavor that I want to describe as "exceptionally yellow," which is a rather silly thing to say but it's what comes to mind and now that I've written it down I think I'll stick with it because it kind of gets the idea across. Really as I think about it "yellow mustard" is so much a part of American eating that almost a primary flavor in its own right. And if that's the case, then the Rayes really are the folks whose product would be the paradigm.