Zoo mustard mystery continues

What brand was served at Cafe Brauer? Panel tastes for clues

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The question from Michael A. Collins sounded relatively simple: What mustard was served with hot dogs at Lincoln Park Zoo's Café Brauer in the 1950s and 1960s?

"Try as I might, I have been unable to find who made it,'' wrote the resident of Cary, Ill. "Would you be able to find out who that was? Are they still around?"

My first attempt to answer this failed as outlined in a recent Daley Question, which ended with a plea to readers to weigh in on the mustard mystery. And readers certainly did, with e-mails, letters and telephone calls offering both suggestions and nostalgic memories of zoo visits.

Many were absolutely certain they could unlock the secret but their answer, "Dusseldorf," was only partially correct. Dusseldorf is a mustard style, like Dijon, not a brand.

A big break in the mystery came when Les Fisher, the zoo's iconic former director, remembered that a Paul Hecker, now deceased, held the zoo's concessions contract. His daughter, Jean Skrak of Winnetka, and grandchildren, Barbara Shields of Wilmette, and Paul Hecker of Roswell, Ga., all contacted me after the article ran. The Dusseldorf-style mustard was made by Monarch Foods, they said.

Trouble is, Monarch, now part of US Foods of Rosemont, is a food line sold to restaurants and businesses. Consumers wouldn't find that mustard on their supermarket shelf, according to Lisa Lecas, a US Foods spokeswoman.

Could there be a mustard available in supermarkets that comes close to that Monarch mustard? I held an informal blind taste test of various brands suggested by readers.

I invited Fisher, Skrak and Shields, who also had worked at Cafe Brauer, along with Betsy Benoit, who worked as an elephant keeper at the zoo. Collins got an invite, too, but couldn't make it.

Just for kicks, I asked various food-centric members of the Chicago Tribune staff to sample the brands, but reporter Monica Eng was the only colleague who got to vote on the mustard mystery question because she had chowed down at the zoo as a kid.

Panelists were asked to sample five mustards on their own — a rather interesting taste exercise — and paired with slices of Vienna Beef hot dogs. The mustards tasted were: Bertman Original Ballpark, French's Spicy Brown, Gulden's Spicy Brown, Koops' Dusseldorf and White Castle Dusseldorf.

All of the tasters dismissed the spicy brown mustards immediately — they were way too yellowish. The Bertman intrigued them but the Cleveland brand wasn't it, either. That left Koops' and White Castle in the running.

The winner? White Castle, by a 3-2 vote. Fisher, Benoit and Eng thought the White Castle tasted most like the way they remembered Cafe Brauer's mustard to be. Skrak and Shields chose Koops'.

White Castle? Yes. Even for those of us rating the mustard on taste alone and no Cafe Brauer memories, the White Castle Dusseldorf stood out with a tangy assertiveness capped by a peppery clove note. It was terrific on a hot dog.

I later learned White Castle allows a certain degree of regionalism when it comes to its menu. While restaurants in other areas of the country use regular yellow mustard, Chicago and some other Midwest markets get a Dusseldorf-style instead.

No need to rush in and swipe handful of packets if you want to try this mustard. Bill Thompson, White Castle's regional director, said restaurants in and around Chicago began selling the Dusseldorf mustard in 10-ounce bottles about a year or so ago. The price is $2.99.

White Castle may have eked out a first-place finish in our tasting session but the company is not a customer of the Monarch mustard maker, US Foods, according to Lecas.

That leaves Koops' Dusseldorf mustard, which is available, of course, in stores and supermarkets. The brand is now owned by Olds Products Co. of Pleasant Prairie, Wis.

Tim McAvoy, Olds vice president, said Olds also made mustard for Monarch.

"Olds made the store brands and Koops' made the retail,'' he said. "We believe the mustard was our Dusseldorf."

While confident today's Koops' mustard is the one Collins is after, McAvoy admits the proof can be difficult to pin down all these years later.

"This is as close as anyone is going to get to Cafe Brauer mustard,'' he said of Koops'.

Skrak needed little convincing. "This is it!" she wrote on her testing score card.

How could this group of tasters be so split on which brand really was "it"? Easily. Products and tastes can change with time. So, too, can memory — especially taste memory. Perceptions shift, certain flavors seem to dull, others sharpen.

Sorry to say this, Mr. Collins, but there's no proverbial smoking gun to solve the mustard mystery — at this point at least.

My advice? Go out and buy a number of different Dusseldorf mustards and a big box of hot dogs and throw a mustard tasting party of your own. You'll find the mustard that matches memory best and your guests will have a memorable time sampling the various types.

For as McAvoy says, "people are not remembering the 'hot dog' as much as they are remembering the 'mustard' on the hot dog."

Do you have a question about food or drink? E-mail Bill Daley at: wdaley@tribune.com. Snail mail inquiries should be sent to: Bill Daley, Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago 60611. Twitter @billdaley.
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