I’ve got this obsession.
It goes like this: Someone invites me into their home. When no one is around, I go into the kitchen and open the refrigerator and the ritual begins. I examine their condiments, recording my findings in a notepad. It’s all very scientific.
Like some rogue anthropologist set loose in the field, I want to better understand the people around me. You’ve probably done something similar. You see a guy wearing a suit and tie and naturally you think businessman. Or at least I do.
But condiments are different. We do not buy condiments to impress clients or turn on potential mates. Condiments aren’t like lingerie. We buy them for ourselves. A bit of comfort in the home. Imagine sweatpants.
Perhaps you’re wondering: Couldn’t we learn more from a person’s underwear drawer?
Alright, I’ll meet you halfway: I’ll write about the inside of refrigerators as if refrigerators were underwear drawers.
Last week I was housesitting for a Canadian couple. There was a plate set aside for me in the fridge. A Post-it note read:
★Noah★ Cheesecake — top with sauer Kirsch in fridge door.
Cherry sauce! Now there’s a condiment. There were others in the door: A jar of muskatnuss, a sort of nutmeg paste, something that I’d never seen before. I didn’t touch it. It looked spooky. A tube of Düsseldorfer, a local German mustard.
There was a squeeze bottle of würzige remoulade, which is basically the European answer to tartar sauce. There was also one of those yellow plastic lemons filled with plastic lemon juice.
The Food Snob’s reply: I don’t mean to be swanky, but I could never take those plastic lemons seriously. What ever happened to lemon wedges?
I was snooping through the fridge of a South African friend, a bachelor. I wasn’t expecting to find the missing link. My expectation was to find condiments on the brink of despair, the type of scene that might have inspired the old masters. Still Life with Soy Sauce Packet and Bearded Mayonnaise.
But this bachelor surprised me! On the top shelf there was a jar of mandelmus, or almond paste, which I assume is like peanut butter, except with almonds. There were two types of Düsseldorfer mustard (“extra” and “medium”) and a jar of mango chutney — the mark of a party animal.
The Food Snob’s reply: There was some mayo in the door as well, but alas, it was not bearded.
I used to be a fussy eater. Until the age of 11 I lived off cucumbers, canned tuna, block cheese, and peanut butter. I had no room in my life for condiments. (And no, peanut butter is not a condiment if consumed for sustenance.)
I’m more adventurous now, but I wouldn’t call my condiment selection exotic. If I had to guess what I had right now, I’d say: Heinz ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise.
I feel like I’m missing some items. Is three enough? Does it matter?
I’ll tell you what. I’ll flip a coin to see what happens next: a half-assed inquiry into my alleged condiments or a true account of what I have. I don’t have a coin right here, so I’ll have to go and get one in the kitchen. I’ll be back in a minute and flip the coin: heads half-assed inquiry, tails true account.
There is a short, clear jar with a handwritten label that reads “Erdbeeren 2010.” I have no idea how this got here. The handwriting is not my own. I don’t make jam.
There is hoisin sauce, which to me is more an ingredient, but I could see how some might consider it a condiment. There’s Worcestershire sauce, but again, I consider this less a condiment than necessity in a Bloody Mary.
In the hot sauce department we have Sriracha “Rooster Sauce” and Tabasco. On the mild end of the spectrum there’s XO brand sweet chili sauce and Lee Kum Kee sweet & sour.
In the door we have Squid brand fish sauce and a jar of good old Düsseldorfer mustard.
The Food Snob’s reply: The condiments of my childhood were like primary colors, and everyone I knew decorated the inside of their fridge with ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise.
My tastes changed while living in Asia. No ketchup in my fridge there — I kept a big, smelly bottle of fish sauce handy and prominent.
So far as the experiment is concerned, it doesn’t surprise me that the one condiment we all had in common was made right here in Düsseldorf. However, I can’t help but think about the deeper implications. Perhaps, through our collective experience with this mustard, we share some unspoken connection, to each other, to the city.
Perhaps it’s much bigger than any of us realize. Perhaps it means something.
It may not be as revealing as, say, rifling through someone’s underwear drawer, but hey — a guy’s gotta draw the line somewhere.
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C Noah Pelletier
C. Noah Pelletier is working on a series of essays about growing up in the American South, marrying young, and living abroad. Having spent two years in China, he has traveled extensively throughout South East Asia. A native of North Carolina, Noah now resides in Germany with his wife, where they have once again come to terms with metal cutlery. Follow him @flyingknuckle.