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Chuckles And Condiments

Mustard Museum tickles tastebuds and funny bone

Tucked away in an ordinary looking building on the main street of a small town in Wisconsin, we came across a unique and fun little museum that could best be described as deliciously fun. Boasting a collection of over 3,500 different mustards from around the world, the Mount Horeb Mustard Museum is the creation of Barry Levenson, a former Wisconsin assistant attorney general.

Everything about the Mustard Museum is tongue in cheek, including its conception. Following the defeat of his beloved Boston Red Sox in the 1986 World Series, Levenson says he was so depressed he could not sleep and spent his nights prowling the aisles of 24 hour grocery stores. Walking past the condiment section, Levenson claims a deep voice called out to him from the mustard display, telling him "If you collect us, they will come."

Not one to ignore a mysterious missive from the mustard gods, Levenson took to his new avocation with a fervor. He began collecting mustards like others might collect coins or stamps. While continuing his duties for the state, Levenson’s obsession with mustard continued to grow, to the point that he argued a case before the United States Supreme Court (Griffin v. Wisconsin, 1987) with a jar of mustard in his pocket for good luck.

By 1991, Levenson’s collection has grown to over a thousand mustards from around the world, and he knew where his destiny lay. Quitting the legal profession ("Who needs a good salary, paid vacations, benefits and job security when they have mustard?" Levenson reasoned), he opened the Mustard Museum on Mount Horeb’s quaint main street. The museum became just as successful as the mysterious voice promised Levenson it would, and the Mount Horeb Mustard Museum has become a major tourist attraction. The museum has been featured in national magazines and on the Oprah Winfrey television program, and Levenson appeared on To Tell The Truth. Only one of the show’s panel, Paula Poundstone, cast a correct vote for Levenson. These days Levenson calls himself a "recovering lawyer," but still remembers those in the profession he left behind, levying on all lawyers who make purchases in the Mustard Museum’s gift shop the "20% Low Life and Vermin surcharge."

 

Visitors to the Mustard Museum must come armed with a sense humor and the ability to suspend rational belief for the duration of their visit. In exchange, they are treated to a fascinating look into the history of mustard and its impact on our culinary habits.

No one knows who first used the mustard seed to season food, but people have been using mustard with their food for centuries. The earliest references to mustard come from the Dijon region of France, dating back to 1336, when early monks used mustard sauces in food preparation. The French perfected mustard production, and today many gourmets consider Dijon mustard to be the standard by which all other mustards are measured.

The English developed their own style of mustard, mostly produced in homes and monasteries.. In the mid-1600s the town of Tewkesbury, in Gloucestershire, became a thriving mustard production center, with its thick horseradish mustard becoming a staple of English cooking. No one knows why, but for some reason, Tewkesbury’s mustard industry disappeared almost overnight. The most popular style of English mustard to evolve was developed by Jeremiah Colman in 1804 in Norwich. Like Barry Levinson, who would use humor to promote his Mustard Museum nearly 200 years later, Colman developed a whimsical marketing plan, creating a "Mustard Club" of oddball characters, including Master Mustard, Baron de Beef, and Miss Di Gester. Through his brilliant marketing methods, Colman’s mustard became the quintessential English mustard.

In America, mustard did not come into wide use until the early Twentieth Century, when Francis French, a New York spice merchant, developed a mild yellow mustard sauce that became an immediate hit. In the last three decades, American mustard has evolved into many different styles, each with its own unique flavor. Businessman Grey Poupon developed his own distinct brand of mustard, based upon the French style, and promoted it with a brilliant marketing plan that took on a fad-like quality ("Excuse me, do you have any Grey Poupon?"), and the phrase was repeated across the nation. Today’s American-made mustards are a varied and numerous range of products, reflecting the many tastes and preferences of the regions where they were born.

The Mount Horeb Mustard Museum displays a huge variety of mustards from across the nation and around the world. A centerpiece of the museum is its collection of antique mustard pots and tins, including from such brands as DuMont, Ben Hur, Crescent, Natco, Jack Sprat, and Sudan, as well as other mustard memorabilia. At a recent auction in England, the museum purchased several unique items, including a bust of the Mustard Club’s Baron de Beef and an original Colman’s Egg Register pamphlet. (At one time, Colman promoted mustard as a stimulant for egg production, urging farmers to feed it to their hens.

In the museum French’s MustardPiece Theater, visitors can watch videos on the history of mustard, then browse through the extensive array of mustards in the museum’s gift shop.

Levenson’s sense of humor is as delicious as the mustards he displays and sells. The museum has its own college, Poupon U, where you can earn degrees as an M.D. (Mustard Doctor), J.D. (Juris Dufus), D.D.S. (Doctor of Diddley Squat), or even an M.B.A. (Master of Bad Attitude). No time consuming classes are required at this college, just plunk down your $6 and get your sheepskin! Poupon U alumni are proud of their alma mater, and the museum’s gift shop carries a nice selection of sweatshirts, caps, and pennants, all emblazoned with the Poupon U logo.

One of the most popular methods through which Levenson promotes the Mustard Museum is the newsletter The Proper Mustard, printed on (what else) mustard yellow paper. The newsletter’s subhead identifies it as "Yellow journalism at its best." The newsletter carries articles, some of which are even serious, about the museum’s activities, events in the world of mustard, mustard judging competitions, and recipes. But of course, you can’t blame Levenson for slipping in an occasional jab or two at those predators who push that other so-called condiment, ketchup, or the poor souls caught in its grip. The most recent edition of The Proper Mustard also carries information about the museum’s latest contest, in which entrants are asked to supply the ending to the phrase "A day without mustard..."

Unheard of, even for a former lawyer, Levenson has a sense of social responsibility, and the Mustard Museum offers confidential condiment counseling for those visitors who have come to admit that they need help with their mustard addictions. The museum also recently announced its new faith-based Condiment Outreach Program, which is described as a "kinder, gentler approach to helping ketchup and mayo eaters turn away from their wretched habits of condiment abuse." According to Levenson, the program is based upon the time-honored carrot-stick method of behavioral modification. "We either beat you with a carrot, or we beat you with a stick. We’re not fussy." Sports enthusiasts can even get in a frame or two of mustard bowling while they await their turn with a counselor.

With so many different mustards to choose from, what’s a poor visitor to do? How do you select the right mustard for your table? The Mustard Museum offers free mustard tasting of every variety offered for sale, and one could spend an afternoon sampling and still not work their way through the entire inventory of over 500 mustards. Flavors include everything from beer and garlic mustards, to such exotics as a merlot and chocolate mustard and cranberry mustard. The Mustard Museum has the world’s largest selection of prepared mustards, over 3,600. According to Mustard Museum literature, that many jars of mustard laid end to end would cause Curator Levenson to have a fit. "There are few rules at the Mustard Museum," says one sign, "but the Absolutely no laying the mustards end to end rule is one we strictly enforce."

The Mustard Museum recently moved into larger quarters on Mount Horeb’s Main Street, and the museum boasts that its new facility, with four times the space of their first location, offers all of the amenities of a first-class museum, including indoor plumbing and floor to ceiling walls. At least one informed source tells us that the building also comes with rubberized restraints for Curator Levenson.

For anyone with a taste for mustard, or just looking for something a little out of the ordinary, a visit to the Mount Horeb Mustard Museum is a fun experience, and you are sure to have a good time. The museum is located at 100 West Main Street, in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, which is a few miles west of Madison, and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. You can request a copy of the museum’s 32 page full color catalog, which the museum claims is the only mustard catalog you will ever need, by calling 1-800-438-6878 toll free, or by visiting their website at www.mustardmuseum.com