Q: Growing up in Old Town back in the late 1950s and early 1960s meant numerous trips to the North Avenue beach and Lincoln Park Zoo, among other places, and eating cotton candy and hot dogs. I remember the hot dogs at Café Brauer at the zoo came with only one condiment — mustard — that I believe came in gallon jugs with a pump. Try as I might, I have been unable to find who made it. Would you be able to find out who that was? Are they still around?
—Michael A. Collins, Cary, Ill.
A: I love this question because I can't find a definite answer for you. That means I, and you, have to depend on the kindness of readers to unlock the name of the mystery mustard at Café Brauer. So, readers — write me if you know!
Questions about the Café Brauer mustard have been circulating online for years. There have been lots of guesses about the mustard used but no definite answer.
"From what I recall, it was light brown in color,'' Collins told me in a follow-up email. "It had a very unique taste that no other mustard I've had since has captured."
Tiffany Ruddle, a zoo spokeswoman, tried to tackle the question from various angles without success. Les Fisher, the zoo's former president, gave her the name of the man holding the zoo's concessions contract, one Paul Hecker, now deceased. Levy Restaurants, the group operating Café Bauer, didn't know the history of the foods sold there but sent Ruddle to Vienna Beef, the famed Chicago hot dog maker. The folks at Vienna Beef supplied the dogs for the zoo in the 1950s and 1960s but had no record of who supplied the condiments, she said.
I visited the National Mustard Museum in Middleton, Wis., over Easter weekend and asked Curator Barry Levenson about Café Brauer's mustard. He had heard about it too, but didn't know the brand.
Nor did Bruce Kraig, a historian of Chicago food and co-author of the soon-published book, "Man Bites Dog: Hot Dog Culture in America." His very educated guess: Plochman's mustard. (By the by, mustard was the original hot dog condiment, Kraig noted, followed by onions and piccalilli in the 1920s. "The rest came later,'' he said.)
Plochman Inc. was founded in Chicago in 1852. The company is now based in Manteno, Ill.
"We were certainly selling brown mustard in gallon jars at the time but there's no way imaginable to know if we sold it to Café Brauer,'' said Carl M. Plochman III, the company's president and chief executive officer. Plochman, known as "Terry," said the café may have purchased the mustard from a distributor.
So, Mr. Collins, I'm afraid we're back at the beginning with this search. Plochman suggested looking and tasting the mustard brands that are out there. Experiment, tasting coarse- and fine-grain mustards until you find a type that matches the flavor profile in your memory. That may be hard to do, as Ruddle alluded to in her email.
"A couple of longtime friends of the zoo told me they remember the hot dogs being very tasty and recall the mustard in the pump jar, but they also do not know a brand,'' she wrote. "One added that a Café Brauer treat was something quite special for him when he was young, and that the food may have tasted all the better for the fact that it was eaten on sunny, fun days in the park with his family."
I think that's an important point: Setting and mood do impact our impressions of food, which is why restaurants spend so much time working the front of the house. They know great service and a great vibe make great food taste better.
So, the mustard of your memory may be out there — but you're likely never going to recapture that taste. But what a tasty adventure you can have in the searching.
Do you have a question about food or drink? E-mail Bill Daley at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Snail mail inquiries should be sent to: Bill Daley, Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago 60611. Twitter @billdaley.
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