Measuring My Life in Mustard Jars

Approximate Reading Time: 8 minutes

I was returning cleaned glassware and silver, as well as plates and cups, from the dishwasher to their appointed places. Somewhere short of the proverbial shock of recognition, certainly less than “revelation,” and even somewhat more homely and less self-congratulatory than an intellectual’s aperçu, what occurred to me was an insight that had never before registered. Enough time has passed in these dozen years that, in the course of a routine that I have followed almost unfailingly since acquiring my small maison de village in the south of France, I have bought a great quantity of one particular object as part of a fundamental list of staples. These are items so necessary they require a brief stop of our rental car even before arrival in the village for the first time in months, since the last sojourn, at a local supermarket. It is a very short list, and includes bottled water, milk (for milady’s coffee, as I drink it black), perhaps a 250 gram block of sweet butter (not wholly necessary, because never needed immediately), and finally, a jar of Dijon mustard, always the same brand, the prince of such condiments, Maille, and always in the original, undoctored, and very strong version. It is this jar, or I should say its many empty pristine brethren, that I found myself reshelving this morning.

The preferred size of mustard jar (preferred because I have never run out, with visits lasting as long as nearly three months) is the smallest sold in the local groceries. Packed in the same container it has been for years, a heavy glass cylinder, with thick walls, they can withstand a drop to the floor as long as it’s not tiled. They are incised deeply with a not too bad simulacrum of cut crystal design in a semi-scallop. In short, it is, once empty, a rather short vessel, fitting nicely in the hand, the perfectly old fashioned old-fashioned glass, 9 oz. capacity, for the manly drinker. It’s best not only for the eponymous cocktail of a rare venerability, but as well for the bracing shot of a 1½ ounce splash of good bourbon, or rye, or Scotch, with a cube or two that may, modestly, predispose the palate before dining. I say this despite what the French say about strong spirits before a meal. With galling illogic they think nothing of sucking down 3-4 cl of Pastis, a decoction of the same potency as the average grain spirits, no to mention reeking of herbs, prevalent among them being anise, and usually consumed in nearly the same volume, just before tucking in to the very same meal they say is spoiled by the typical modest American pick-me-up. Yet a pastis is still considered “the national drink of France.”

However, whatever our usual contrived cultural deviations from the habits of our French cousins compared to ourselves, I was speaking of the complement of glassware in my kitchen buffet/vaisselier. The glasses number about a dozen, and I wonder how this can be. It’s true I’ve owned the house, first with my late wife, and now with my new one, and there have been years of visits solo, whatever my marital status, for nearly 13 years. It’s a matter to give me pause, however old and original the realization, the passage of time noticed less in my consciousness of the actual passing, but in the accumulated evidence of the life occupied by the act of living during that interval. However, on average, there have been more than two trips a year on average during that period, and so, for one thing, there should be many more cocktail glasses clogging the shelves.

There are many glasses long gone to the recycling plant for sure, because as often as not, instead of emptying the jar and cleaning it in one last cycle of the dishwasher before pulling closed our great oaken front door for the last time that particular visit and turning the great skeletal key in its ancient lock, I have packed up the remaining condiment along with all the rest of the salvageable items from our larder, both sitting on counters, ripening, or keeping in hopes of consumption in the recesses of our small but serviceable refrigerator. These left-overs (or “remains” as the French call them) plus raw produce, butt-ends of cheeses, and a frozen steak or fish filet go to our friends, usually the innkeeper and his wife, Rudolf and Nicole, just across the way. If not for this particular token of largesse, the collection of glasses would overflow the capacity of the pine cupboard in which they are stored. I know this because we are clearly perpetually to be overrun by yogurt containers—the French seem to have a way of creating packaging that is as attractive as its contents, and as reusable as if intended for sale in their own right to begin with; we simply can’t bring ourselves to dispose of them, even as we despair of finding a suitable use consonant with our habits. If we were, say, more the herbal cultivators than we are, they would be ideal, for example, as pots for meal size portions of tarragon or parsley or thyme. I might add, for the edification of Americans who are used to buying their yoghurt in disposable or recyclable thin-walled polystyrene cups, French yoghurt worth bothering with is sold in glass jars or, even more enticingly and pleasurably, in actual enameled terra cotta pots—of a quality and heft that would command a reasonable price in an artists’ cooperative.

The point remains, returning to those mustard jars that have accumulated as the months and years have passed. Thoughts of time, time spent, time passing, and time to come are all somehow embedded in all these common, otherwise ordinary objects. The accrual of them, the easy unconscious charm of collecting is what it is. Whether labelled with some term of disparagement, like “pack rat,” or even with the seemingly neutral “collector” the fact to be addressed is the same. We are all collectors.

What is memory but a collection? And who are we if not our memory?

Whatever I may be, the thought strikes home looking at those mustard glasses that, conscious of it or not, my life has passed before me and it does, unconsciously every time I stand at the rustic buffet that holds my complement of housewares, silverware, everything but plates and cups, and draw spring water from a mammoth reservoir sitting on its countertop to fill the espresso maker every morning. However, this morning, as I pivot, glasses in hand, four of them, one to each of as many fingers, to the buffet from the small utility closet that houses staple items, groceries, booze, the hot water heater—all of what the French consider the cave, by which they mean what we would most likely call the pantry—plus our two major appliances in the kitchen, the fridge and the dishwasher, I am suddenly, as I started out saying, aware, almost tingling with the reflexive consciousness we call thinking. The next thought is if I am to imagine my life amounts to more than consumption of what the world has offered me, I’d best be mindful of what is no longer visible. Quite unmistakably, those mustard glasses are tokens, however ordinary and mundane, of the great negative capability of which Keats spoke.

I hint at a kind of transcendence, and I mean it. However, in the most mundane of senses, and I say this hoping I am not causing the bones of Keats to revolve a time or two wherever they might lie, my life has been boundless dollops of mustard. At the risk of being cute, I mean, nevertheless, there is a spice to one’s life, that reverses the polarity of any moment: seen the right way, even the banal—and what is so much of life, despite ourselves, but banal?—can be, if only for ourselves, sublime. And what sublimity is there in mustard? In this instant, as I prepare a typical light lunch of a salad niçoise a blob of the good dijon is the customary enabler of that fragrant emulsion dispersed in wispy spurts across what number, accounting for all the anonymous days in la France profonde, countless salads of the local bounty, purchased hours before at the week’s marché, and plucked from the earth merely a day or two before that. And in that instant, another typical lunch, determined by an increasingly frequent disinclination to cook, the golden sauce, straight from the jar, spread across two uneven slabs of a crusty sourdough loaf—the precise piquant counterpoint to the velvety squares of comté blanketed in random mounds of delicately fragrant aged ham, cut as thin as butterfly wings with a tracery of veins of fat gone translucent with age and smoke and time. Like the banal raised to the heights somehow, all that melting goodness is pierced by the sharp pangs of the spice, so the flavors move from the mouth to occupy every sensible cavity in one’s head.

Lest I be mistaken as another arriviste memoirist, of impoverished imagination, I want to be clear that one thing that does not happen is I am not sent soaring on Proustian flights of verbose recollection. Wordy I may be, but this morning, I am somewhere short, but not by much, of being overcome with floods of feeling. If we are nought but memory, and memory is nothing but collections of the flotsam and jetsam of singular and private ephemera, carriers, like mammoth storage containers, what is contained but feeling, felt and somehow stored, to be recalled each time we ramble in our minds, eyeing the stacks of boxes of remembrance piled higher and higher with the passing years into the impenetrable darkness?


What happened since that morning, when I was briefly jolted out of the stultifying quotidian ritual of keeping house by keeping clean and organized, is I found myself at times simply sitting and staring, as I sat in whatever room in the house I happened to light. One afternoon I sat on the sofa in the salon and surveyed the meager, if yet ample, stock of furniture—it’s a small house, after all—two floor lamps, with plain functional conical shades on bulbs at the ends of articulated arms, two small oriental rugs, and a third hanging like a miniature tapestry on one wall, a small ur-modernist sofa, though designed for Ligne Roset by a well-known contemporary designer and of a size and intended use so as to be called, in French, a canapé (a word whose derivation I have never been sufficiently curious to research in one of my copies of the Petit Larousse), that is, longer than a love seat, but smaller than a couch, then two armchairs, which have grown prematurely dowdy somehow, purchased also from Ligne Roset at the same time as the sofa, and now expropriated by Artemis, our dog, who has taken to both—at first it was the one I usually favored, closest to the single casement window—in a proprietary way.

And as I stare at nothing particular sitting there, I think of the friends who have been entertained in that space, as we enjoyed one another’s company, and not just a few flutes of champagne on festive occasions, some as formal as New Year’s, but most no more than celebrations, spontaneous at that, of camaraderie and the unshakeable solidity of simple close deep bonds of love. I think of all the guests who have passed through this ancient space—and are we not all fleeting guests in this life?—and my thinking reverberates involuntarily in some barely conscious sense of the spirit of the place, almost mythic, with imaginings of all the souls that have passed through here before us. The house is, or parts, at least, are, 600 years old. The core of it, the original humble space, appropriately, is where I sit and muse, and the kitchen, of course, where sit all those unwitting palimpsests of memory, mainly air and transparent glass, sit and wait to be filled.

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9 thoughts on “Measuring My Life in Mustard Jars

    • I have neither read the book nor, as yet, seen the movie. The author of the comment has privately admitted to a personal affinity for the movie as well, particularly for Irons’s performance… If that makes you feel better. Any movie with a two star [of David] approval rating is good enough for me.

  1. Hershell, mon vieux – The next time you return from France, could I ask you to place one full jar of this Dijon (for I have despaired of finding a decent moutarde locally). For when it I empty I shall surely turn it into an appropriate vessel for my daily preprandial libation of choice (a tot of potato vodka with one cube of ice). For milady (AKA She Who Must Be Obeyed) has sent to recycling my collection of Manischewitz Jahrzeit glasses (the ones with the lucky horseshoe on the bottom; alas, no longer produced).

    What is memory? May I suggest you read Pascal Mercier’s outstanding novel, Nachtzug nach Lissabon? (The English translation by Barbara Harshav is excellent, but do pass up the movie version, starring Jeremy Irons, with its shallow Hollywood ending.)

    מיט ליבע

  2. Howard,

    Your collection of mustard jars and the memories they conjure are reminders to the full life you have lived. And, you should know, you have made the lives of your friends flush with memories. I am grateful for you and the memories I have.

    • Thanks Jim… as always too kind and generous in what you say, by at least half.

  3. Nice segue from mustard to friendship….in a not-exactly-related note, I’ve mostly switched from mustard (in a variety of varieties), which I put on pretty much everything in recent years, to horseradish (also in a variety of mixtures, plus pure). Maybe a loss of some tastebuds, maybe just looking for a new thrill…sort of a middle-age existential crisis of foodstuffs, perhaps?

    • Have you considered sauerkraut? Oh, but of course you have… How about kim chi? Very au courant. Problem with horseradish is, it’s most complementary to the truly bland and tasteless, or very rare beef (which may be saying the same thing, unless it’s grass fed, and it’s onglet, or tri-tip, or …)

  4. Does this mean that will no longer receive your pleasantly derisive, lengthy and thoughtful rebuttals of whatever I am fulminating about at the moment?

    Say it aiin’t so, Hesh.

    • It ain’t so. I couldn’t survive without deriding you at length. You provide so much material in so few words. As for the rest, I am nothing if not thoughtful.

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