DES MOINES, IA—When Steve Gibson first became casually involved with an online community of mustard makers, he had no idea his mild interest in the condiment would, within a few short months, spiral dangerously out of control.
But Gibson, unlike so many others, managed to get out before the hobby consumed his entire life.
"I don't know how I wound up at that point, but thank God I escaped when I did," Gibson, 41, said Friday. "There I was, a grown man, planning a trip to the Mustard Museum in Wisconsin, when suddenly I heard a voice deep within me say, 'This is not what you want your life to be about.'"
"It was like waking up from a bad dream," Gibson added. "A bad yellow and brown dream."
Gibson's descent into the depths of mustard obsession started innocently enough, when he got involved in an Internet exchange about the best kind of mustard to use on a grilled bratwurst. When someone posted a link encouraging him to "click on this if you really want to spice things up," he took the stranger's advice and suddenly found himself on MustardMonster.com, a discussion group devoted to the cultivation, preparation, and enjoyment of the table-side condiment.
"I immediately realized I was out of my league," Gibson said of his first encounter with the Internet's do-it-yourself mustard community. "At that point I had maybe three different kinds of mustard in my refrigerator, but when I looked at their forum topics, these guys were talking about the strengths of unique varieties of imported mustard seeds, brewing your own vinegar for mustard-making, ways to improve store-bought mustard when you find yourself in a pinch. That…that was the start of what I now call my 'lost year.'"
Over the next few weeks, Gibson broadened his palette with many new and "exciting" mustards, an experiment that soon led him down a path toward compulsive mustard connoisseurship.
After an inquiry about a good place to get starter supplies for mustard-making received eight enthusiastic responses, an emboldened Gibson looked through the group's archives to familiarize himself with its etiquette and tastes. It was there that he first learned about mustard's use in various folk remedies: how to relieve chest congestion by making a plaster from the condiment, or keep feet warm by sprinkling dry seeds into one's shoes.
Initially, Gibson's family encouraged his new interest, saying they were pleased he had found something to do with his spare time and that he was cooking more in order to show off the mustards he made.
"I thought it was pretty neat at first," said Gibson's wife, Heather. "After a while, though, it seemed like every conversation we had was about something the people on his mustard website said. One night I woke up at 3 a.m. and found him bathed in the light of the computer screen, posting his latest mustard thoughts to the message boards."
"That's when I realized the mustard had come between us," she added.
When a MustardMonster member who was "deep into the lifestyle" suggested Gibson till up his yard to grow his own mustard plants, the 41-year-old didn't even balk at the idea. By this point, Gibson said, mustard had become his only reason for getting out of bed in the morning. Coworkers had begun to shun him, friends grew distant. Soon every Tupperware container in his home was filled with the rich, yellow condiment, and Gibson began dumping out half-empty jars of jam and olives in a desperate attempt to find receptacles for his latest zesty concoctions.
It was only when Gibson started getting angry, even enraged, by mustard-related issues that he started realize he had become entangled in a dense, thickening web of mustard obsession.
"I saw my wife putting French's mustard on a bologna sandwich for our 5-year-old son, and I just lost control," Gibson said. "I said things—awful things that I'm not proud of—and the two of them were clearly shaken. I can never take those words back. When I looked in the mirror and barely recognized that livid face staring back at me, I finally understood that these mustard people weren't really my friends."
Sensing he was on the brink of an abyss and fearing what would happen if he hit rock bottom, Gibson—with the support of his wife, who packed a mayonnaise-dressed sandwich in his lunch each day—made the decision to quit mustard for good.
"The craving never leaves you, of course," Gibson said. "Sometimes I'll be in the supermarket, and without realizing it, I'll find myself staring at a nice deli-style or ballpark mustard."
Added Gibson: "But then I walk away. I think about my family, remember that Dijon-slathering, watery-eyed zombie I nearly became, and I walk away."