Barack Hussein Obama's un-American mustard choice

Conservatives go after the president for choosing that most effete of condiments for his burger: Grey Poupon.


Alex Koppelman
May 8, 2009 2:25AM (UTC)

The latest blogospheric brouhaha? When President Obama ordered a burger earlier this week, he asked for it without ketchup -- and with Grey Poupon. No, seriously. Not that this should be surprising by now, but even Sean Hannity has picked up on the story and broadcast it to millions of Fox News viewers. Naturally, in response, various liberal outlets are responding with equal fervor.

There are no winners in this debate. Yes, conservatives who are harping on this are being ridiculous. But liberals who are spending their time harping on conservatives for harping on this are only a little less ridiculous. Frankly, it's one of those stories that makes me wish I was born in a time and place when everyone's behavior was just a little less absurd. Salem, Mass., right around the time when they were executing witches, would do nicely.

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Why, then, am I writing about this? Well, because it gives me an excuse to link to a really fascinating article Malcolm Gladwell wrote for the New Yorker a few years back about the science of taste -- why people like certain kinds of things like ketchup, spaghetti sauce, soda and mustard. Turns out that those store brand colas really aren't very well-made, that Heinz really might be the platonic ideal of ketchup and that almost everyone prefers Grey Poupon to patriotic and manly (but lousy) American mustard. From the piece:

In the early seventies, Grey Poupon was no more than a hundred-thousand-dollar-a-year business. Few people knew what it was or how it tasted, or had any particular desire for an alternative to French's or the runner-up, Gulden's. Then one day the Heublein Company, which owned Grey Poupon, discovered something remarkable: if you gave people a mustard taste test, a significant number had only to try Grey Poupon once to switch from yellow mustard. In the food world that almost never happens; even among the most successful food brands, only about one in a hundred have that kind of conversion rate...

In the cities where the [now-iconic chauffeur] ads ran, sales of Grey Poupon leaped forty to fifty per cent, and whenever Heublein bought airtime in new cities sales jumped by forty to fifty per cent again... By the end of the nineteen-eighties Grey Poupon was the most powerful brand in mustard...

The rise of Grey Poupon proved that the American supermarket shopper was willing to pay more -- in this case, $3.99 instead of $1.49 for eight ounces -- as long as what they were buying carried with it an air of sophistication and complex aromatics. Its success showed, furthermore, that the boundaries of taste and custom were not fixed: that just because mustard had always been yellow didn't mean that consumers would use only yellow mustard.

If you're interested in these sorts of things, the full article really is worth a read. Certainly a better use of your time than arguing over mustard-based politics.


Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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