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Mustard Company Doesn't Relish Any Attack on Its Name

March 28, 2003|Steve Lopez

If you own a business in the United States, there's no better time than now to put your best foot forward.

Take the example of Halliburton, Vice President Dick Cheney's old company. Before the war in Iraq had even begun, those boys were sniffing around like bloodhounds, picking up a scent on postwar contracts.

And so when I saw an urgent press release from the French's mustard people, I figured the company was introducing a line of kebab dressings for our new Iraqi friends, or perhaps announcing that French's is the official condiment of "Operation Iraqi Freedom."

I had it all wrong.

French's was alerting a jittery nation that we can rest easy -- French's mustard has nothing to do with the country known as France, which stubbornly refused to support "Operation Iraqi Freedom."

Of course, the French aren't looking so dumb now that the war effort seems bogged down. U.S. officials are dumbstruck day in and day out by things like desert sandstorms and the fact that Iraqis are shooting back instead of rolling out the red carpet.

But picayune problems like that haven't kept the House of Representatives from stuffing themselves with "freedom fries" from the cafeteria menu, or Air Force One from touting its freezer-fresh "freedom toast."

That'll show the French who the sophisticates are.

With pressure mounting, the folks at French's mustard felt they had no choice but to clear the record, especially after two TV reports alluded in jest to a possible link to France.

"THE ONLY THING FRENCH ABOUT FRENCH'S MUSTARD IS THE NAME!" screamed the press release from French's PR agency. "Recently there has been some confusion as to the origin of French's mustard. For the record, French's would like to say, there is nothing more American than French's mustard."

This comes as a great relief.

If it's true.

With spring in the air, I was gearing up for barbecue season and found myself in the condiment aisle of my neighborhood supermarket last week. What better way to ring in the warm weather than to toss some nice German sausage on the grill and lather it with French's Dijon mustard?

But then I stopped myself. The Germans didn't back us on this war, either.

Whose side are the Polish on?

I put the French's Dijon (a city in France) back on the shelf and picked up the Kraft Grey Poupon.

Wait a minute. Grey Poupon?

Do the British make a mustard?

When I saw the French's press release this week, in which "French's" was boldfaced at every mention, as in "French's mustard IS Americana," I called the PR office. A spokesperson assured me the company "did not mean to draw attention to ourselves or be opportunistic" in the middle of a war.

Give me a break, s'il vous plait.

Who owns French's anyway? Halliburton? It just strikes me as a little unusual to send out a national bulletin and include the entire history of mustard, the hot dog, and gloat about being "the official mustard at Yankee stadium," if you're trying to keep a low profile.

The company is named for a guy who called himself Robert T. French, for crying out loud, a name that doesn't sound Italian to me.

Where was this Mr. French from? I asked the flack.

He stammered and stalled. Then after some "research," he dug up an answer.

The late Mr. French was English.

Maybe so, but I'm not sure what to think. These guys have a mustard named for Dijon (a city in France), and they want the whole world to believe it's actually made in Missouri, with the home office in Wayne, N.J.

I decided that Grey Poupon might be the lesser of two evils, but I called first just to check them out. Turns out Grey Poupon is made in Pennsylvania (which has a lot of Germans, I should point out).

"We have no plans to do a press release saying we're not associated with France," said Alyssa Burns, senior communications manager for Kraft and Grey Poupon.

Does that mean they are associated with France?

I was going to drop the whole thing, but decided to take one last look at the French's Web site. That's when I happened to notice this little tidbit:

"French's Dijon is an authentic Dijon mustard, not a 'Dijon-style' mustard."

How can it be an authentic Dijon mustard if it's not from France or made with French ingredients? And not only that, but the Web site listed white wine among the ingredients.

White wine from France, perhaps?

Somebody ought to have Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft take a look at this thing.

When the French's mustard spokesman called back, I was all set to get to the bottom of it. But before I could get a word in, he started whimpering about the big trouble he'd gotten himself into.

"I've apparently made a grave mistake in speaking on behalf of the brand," he said, telling me he was supposed to have referred my call to the chief toadie at French's -- President Elliot Penner. Would I take a call from him? he asked.

I would, but he never rang. And they say the French are rude.

Look, it's not my fault if French's big cheese thought this corporate grunt was being a hot dog. So I put the question to him about French's Dijon (a city in France).

"I don't think the white wine is French," he said.

He doesn't think it's French?

"And most of our mustard seed comes from Canada," he added.

Quebec, perhaps?

*

Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at steve.lopez@latimes.com

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