The Mustard Museum in Middleton, Wisconsin, is that special place where it is socially acceptable for mustard lovers to openly share, declare and sample their love of that great golden hue which so many of us love but don’t generally show much gratitude for. If you have ever felt like sounding off a few hip, hip, hoorays for this beloved condiment, Middleton is the place to be.
The person behind the World Mustard Museum is Barry Levenson, curator and Chief Mustard Officer of the Mustard Museum. The story begins on the early morning of October 28, 1986. The Boston Red Sox had just lost the World Series to the New York Mets, and just hours after the devastating undoing, Levenson, traipsed through an all-night grocery store, soul-searching for a clearer understanding of life. Crushed by his team’s seventh game squander, he waltzed by the pickles, the ketchups, the relishes, the horseradishes, and the mayos. When he hovered over the mustards, he says he heard a powerful voice, à la Field of Dreams: “If you collect us, they will come.”
“It was a painful time,” recalls Levenson. “I began collecting jars of mustard that night and the collection started to grow and to fascinate me.” At the time of this zestfully zany epiphany, the Massachusetts native served as Assistant Attorney General for the State of Wisconsin. Five years later, the collection grew so large that it warranted a bigger spotlight. Therefore, Levenson fully heeded that voice, quitting law to start a museum with space enough to display the 1,000 jars he had already amassed.
Since then tens of thousands of curiosity hounds have come to the Mustard Museum, which opened April 6, 1992. And even after 17 years of talking mustard, Levenson has not lost his interest in discussing the pungent paste’s history, origins, varieties and virtues.
“Ancient Egyptians chewed mustard seeds to release their essence,” says Levenson. “Dijon mustard began centuries ago in France. Each country since since put their own spin on it. My favorite is whatever I happen to be eating at the time. Putting ketchup on a hot dog or putting mayonnaise on a corn beef sandwich is a travesty!”
The Mustard Museum represents the whole world of mustard powders and plants, from A to Z, from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe, and quite a few places in between. Slovenian, South African, Italian, Scottish, Welsh, Russian, and Japanese mustards receive special highlighting. Wisconsin mustards get a distinguished exhibition as well, with displays of Wisconsin Wilderness, famous for its cranberry mustard, East Shore, noted for its sweet hot variety, and Koops, an award-winning Eau Claire-based pepper mustard producer.
“You can find so many uses for these super Wisconsin mustards,” says Levenson, “like dill mustard on fish, pepper mustard as an ingredient in guacamole, and putting brown mustard in soups or salad dressings. Wisconsin mustards are worth the trip alone.”
The museum houses more than 5,000 mustards and hundreds of items of mustard memorabilia, including mustard and hot dog art, literature, apparel, toys, coffee mugs, billboards, gift boxes, dispensers, model trucks, and souvenir buses and railroad cars. Other items include 19th century mustard crocks, grand old English silver mustard pots, mustard ads, classic tins, and a Gulden’s radio. Mustard patrons learn just how versatile, practical and diverse mustard is; thousands of hot pepper, garlic, veggie & herb, maple walnut, spicy apricot, herb, black truffle, champagne, mild organic, dill, Dijon, and fruit variations await discovery.
About 35,000 visitors a year from all across the country and globe travel to the Mustard Museum in search of a little culinary or cultural insight. Nevertheless, for Levenson, who has even authored a children’s book entitled Mustard on a Pickle, no praise is too lavish for one of the world’s most ancient spices and oldest known condiments.
“It’s the smartest condiment of them all,” says Levenson. “as opposed to the dreaded K-word, ketchup, which is, according to National Condiment Research Council, now the leading cause of childhood stupidity. We do not traffic in the lesser condiments here. Just think about how gloomy, fatty and boring mayonnaise is! At least horseradish and mustard belong to the same botanical family, with the same essential element. Horseradish is another acceptable condiment.”
Levenson says that Americans consume approximately 700 million pounds of mustard each year, probably more than any other country, making the wholesomely red-white-and-blue striped Midwest the logical setting for his castle of condiments.
For 20 years, National Mustard Day had been celebrated annually at the Mustard Museum’s Mount Horeb home on the first Saturday in August. The Mustard Museum moved to a new larger space in Middleton in the fall of 2009.