Column: Can’t utter compliment? You get condiment


The foremost ingredient in mustard is vinegar.

The Recker children on Sugar Pine Drive know well the sour power of what is edible yet formidable enough to be used as a cleaning agent. Hence, they despise mustard, fleeing it in fear from the kitchen through the living room down the hall to their bedroom in a frantic search for an escape route, as if being chased by a rotten-toothed brute with a pitchfork. The top bunk, they hope, offers a safe harbor from a stormy dollop of Plochman’s.

Dad, please no. Not the mustard. I won’t say it again.

There once was a show called “Kids Say the Darndest Things.” It was cute, even got turned into a full-length musical comedy. Bill Cosby was involved and he never says any bad words. Where I live, producers would have to tweak the name into something like “(Expletive) Kids Say the (expletive) Things. Got it, (expletive)?”

That’s the problem.

Enter the Grey Poupon.

Of the five humans living in my home, I am the only fan of mustard. I couldn’t eat it from the container with a spoon — that’s what peanut butter is for — but no hot dog or turkey sandwich or grilled anything is perfect without a stream of that potent blend of vinegar, water, mustard seed, salt, paprika, garlic flavors and whatever is involved in making “other natural flavors.” My children, urged to see if they inherited their father’s appreciation of mustard, have been brave enough to smear their index finger with a squiggle from the tip of a yellow Great Value tub, but the appendage gets no further than the front of their tongue before they scrunch their eyebrows and wiggle their lips as if they’ve bitten into an anthill.

They enjoy other condiments.

Like most of her peers, the 2-year-old dips everything in ketchup. The 7-year-old favors barbecue sauce. The 5-year-old craves, more than anything on the planet, ranch. She plunges chicken nuggets into a thick, deep, white reservoir and pulls toward her mouth a morsel of dinner that looks as if it’s been ransacked by a blizzard, TP’d and puffed with baby powder. Her dream home is somewhere in Hidden Valley. The children have all been made aware that broccoli, when drizzled with A1, becomes considerably more palatable. I’ve told them how I used to eat hot dogs with jelly; yes, fruit preserves spread on processed meat. Good Lord, their mother taught them it’s acceptable — even an homage to their grandparents and those before them — to dip salmon patties in something called Karo; yes, seafood slathered in corn syrup.

Lucky for me, something as straightforward and traditional as mustard horrifies them.

Lucky because while some kids say the darndest things, the offspring of a foul-mouthed father and a short-tempered mother say the damndest things. A few weeks ago, the 5-year-old struggled to find the perfect pair of socks or her favorite pair of shorts or a shirt that fit just right. She sat by herself in her room and, talking to nobody in particular, declared, “I don’t give a (what goes here rhymes with ‘fit’).”

There are proud moments in a parent’s life. Then there’s the time when your incoming kindergartner drops the S-bomb like it’s just another word in an ordinary fit of rage.

The sass is not incessant. But it lingers. People are stupid, the kids blurt. You’re a meanie, they announce to their mother. I’m not  picking up my room, they inform me. They spray insults at one another like venom from a viper’s fangs — I hate you; I wish you’d move away; you look ugly.

My wife and I would feel better about ourselves if we lived in Bill Cosby’s G-rated world because, really, what kind of parent raises a kid who does not give a (fit) about broadcasting that she does not give a (fit)?

These days, bad words and other assorted verbal fouls — backtalk, attitude, smarty-pants input, growling, grumbling, whining and wailing — are neutralized with Daddy’s favorite condiment. Say  something malicious, you get mustard. Straight-up vinegar is acceptable. A drop of Dawn or a sliver of Zest is the traditional way to go, but my mother never made good on the threat to wash my mouth out with soap, and I’ve always thought that force-feeding my child something not meant for human consumption might land me in court or jail or hell.

Mustard is gentle yet pungent, edible yet ornery, legal yet evil.

It’s also effective. Now, the kids hurry to take back their unfit language like a frog coiling its tongue to pluck a fly from the air. If they don’t catch themselves, all it takes is one step toward the fridge.

You sure you think your sister is stupid?

Hey, kids. Smile, you’ve got French’s.

Jason Recker is the news editor at The Herald. Next year’s family vacation: The National Mustard Museum in Wisconsin. His email is

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