If you're a regular reader of Road Tips, you'll know that I'm somewhat of a condiment junkie - I've even dedicated a whole condiment category on this blog. Both our refrigerator and pantry are filled with jars and bottles of barbecue sauce, mustard, horseradish and other interesting toppings that I've come across during my travels, much to the consternation of my wife. She just cringes when I come home with some different type of olive spread, steak sauce or spicy giardiniera. Of course, for a guy like me who loves the taste sensations of a good condiment on my food, there has to be a place to celebrate condiments and that place is the National Mustard Museum in Middleton, WI.
Now, if you're like me, who in the hell would start a museum that was dedicated to the history of mustard from around the world? It's actually a pretty compelling story.
Barry Levenson, a native of Massachusetts, was an assistant Attorney General for the State of Wisconsin in 1986 and he found himself wandering aimlessly down the aisles of an all-night grocery store a couple hours after his beloved Boston Red Sox lost the World Series. He suddenly stopped in front of the mustard display at the store and was mesmerized by the amount and different types of mustard on the shelves. It was then he had an epiphany for all things mustard.
The next year, Levenson went to Washington to argue a case before the Supreme Court. Before he went before the court to argue his case, he saw a small jar of mustard on a room service tray in the hallway of his hotel. Levenson picked it up, stuck it in his pocket and proceeded to win his case before the Supreme Court. Thinking that the mustard brought him good luck, Levenson began to collect mustard and archive the history of mustard.
Levenson's passion and collection grew to a point that he ended up quitting his post with the State of Wisconsin in 1992 and he opened the Mount Horeb Mustard Museum in Mount Horeb, WI, about 20 miles south and west of Madison. Levenson used a combination of kitsch, pop culture and history to tell his story of the history of mustard. And what better state to do it in - Wisconsin is the home of the North American bratwurst. And what is better with a bratwurst than mustard? Well, OK - mustard and sauerkraut with a bratwurst...
Levenson's collection grew so large that he was forced to move to a larger location in 2000 just across the street. Buoyed by a growing interest from people from around the world, Levenson's Mustard Museum was a regular stop for tourist buses and those curious people who happened to come into Mount Horeb off of Highway 151. Over 30,000 people would visit the Mustard Museum annually.
Mount Horeb, itself, was a sort of tourist community in its own right with it's famed "Trollway" - the main street through town was decorated with dozens of troll statues as the town paid homage to its Norwegian roots. A number of small shops and antique stores sprang up along that street, as well as a neat little brew pub called The Grumpy Troll. My wife and I have spent some time in Mount Horeb in the past, even visiting the Mustard Museum a few years ago. It really was rather interesting.
Someone, and I forget who, e-mailed me a long while back and said that I should go to the Mustard Museum in Mount Horeb and write about it on Road Tips. On a trip to Madison last fall, I drove into Mount Horeb and armed with my GPS directing me to the museum. I pulled up out front of where I remembered the Mustard Museum, only there was no Mustard Museum. I thought that maybe Levenson had run out of money because he charged no money to visit the museum and relied upon donations as well as the sale of assorted mustards and other condiments, shirts, mugs and other kitschy items from the gift shop.
I happened to be in Middleton, WI one evening a few weeks ago and I was looking for a place to eat dinner. One place that I had pinpointed for dinner was closed that evening and as I was regrouping to figure out where to go for Plan B, I looked over and to my surprise at the corner of Hubbard and Parmenter was the Mustard Museum (see map). Only it was now called the National Mustard Museum. The next day, I had a little time to kill after doing a morning training for American TV and decided to go see the new Mustard Museum.
It became apparent that Levenson was going to move his museum in 2009. Mount Horeb was shriveling up as many of the shops closed and storefronts became vacant. He wanted to go somewhere that had more of a central business area in a larger city. Downtown Middleton has been going through a transformation of a sleepy little suburb to a dynamic shopping and entertainment destination in the greater Madison area. Armed with a $50,000 relocation grant, Levenson moved into downtown Middleton in the fall of 2009.
The new building, which was renovated by a $1.4 million dollar gift from the city of Middleton to the owner of the property, effectively tripled the floor space of Levenson's old museum in Mount Horeb. The main floor houses the gift shop which features the mustards, sauces and other condiments (no ketchup!) the National Mustard Museum sells to help keep the door open. The displays were set up with different types of mustards - foreign made mustards, horseradish-based mustards, local Wisconsin mustards, hot mustards and even fruit mustards. A small counter near the center of the L-shaped main floor allows for periodic tastings of featured mustards. There are also a number of gift boxes of various mustards available to buy at the Mustard Museum. Seriously, it gave me a couple ideas for Christmas gifts later this year.
Levenson's sense of humor shows bright with a collection of shirts, mugs, teddy bears and other quirky items celebrating the Mustard Museum's fictional school of higher mustard learning, "Poupon U". The gift shop at the museum doubles as the "campus bookstore" for Poupon U as they also sell hats, baby bibs, pennants, can koozies, and even Poupon U diplomas. Some of the products were sort of ingenious but I definitely refrained from getting any of that stuff.
Down the stairs toward the back of the Mustard Museum, you'll find the museum itself loaded with over 5000 different types and brands of mustards from all over the world. One whole wall featured mustards from all 50 states and Canada (below left). The collection was even more impressive than I remember it to be when I first visited the original museum in Mount Horeb years ago.
The National Mustard Museum also features two large displays of French Dijon-style mustards (above right), including Amora mustard, one of my favorite of all the mustards in the world. When I go to France I always pick up a jar or two of Amora mustard. It has a sweet and tangy taste to it and goes great with just about anything. But I truly have to say that while I knew there were a lot of French Dijon mustards, I didn't know there was this many.
Of course, there had to be a display paying homage to the king of all mustards, Grey Poupon (below left). It had different styles of jars and containers from over the two plus centuries Grey Poupon has been in existence. Even though the Grey Poupon name is gone from France, it is still a strong identifiable brand in the U.S.
Some of the more historical exhibits at the National Mustard Museum included a large collection of antique mustard seed tins from the 19th and early 20th centuries (above right). This was how a lot of people made their own mustard years ago before prepared mustard became available en masse. I wouldn't have the faintest idea how to make prepared mustard from seeds, but it appears it must have been a popular way to do it given the amount of mustard seed tins on display.
Toward the back of the museum was a small theater that had a short film on the history of mustard. I wasn't about to sit there through the whole presentation, but there were more displays from mustards from around the world. This particular display (below left) had mustards from China, India, Russia and New Zealand. If there is a mustard made any where in the world, the National Mustard Museum has it on display.
Before going back upstairs, I had to take a look at some of the more wacky items on display in the Mustard Museum. This picture (above right) is a full-sized costume of a mustard container. I could almost imagine how uncomfortable wearing that mustard bottle suit really was.
And before leaving the National Mustard Museum, I had to stock up on some mustards that they had to offer in the gift shop. I picked up a bottle of Bertman's Ball Park Mustard, out of the Cleveland area. We went to see a game in Cleveland a few years ago and I remember that the hot dogs absolutely sucked, but the Bertman's Ball Park Mustard was very good. I also picked up a jar of Weber's horseradish mustard from Buffalo, NY on the recommendation of one of the ladies in the gift shop. I've had the Silver Spring brand of horseradish mustard before and it was OK. But when I asked the lady about horseradish mustard in general, she didn't hesitate. "Weber's is the best horseradish mustard," she said. "Great on brats, great on beef. It's super in homemade potato salad, too. You get both the taste of yellow mustard and the taste of the horseradish." (I've since tried it - it's pretty basic mustard, if you ask me. I didn't get much of a horseradish taste to it at all.)
I also picked up a jar of Maui Onion mustard from Hawaiian Plantations in Hawaii, really for no special reason other than it was Hawaiian mustard and we really enjoyed our time in Hawaii last year. And finally, I knew that we were getting low on good ol' regular yellow mustard so I got a large bottle of Koops' mustard to take home. Koops' is, basically, the official mustard of the state of Wisconsin.
While the National Mustard Museum might not be a place that most people would stop just to see all the mustards on display, it combines a sense of humor with a good grasp of history on something as mundane as mustard. It's worth the trip at least once to go in and look around for a half-hour or so, and to pick up something in the gift shop. There's a lot more to see than just the pictures I've included in this entry. The National Mustard Museum is a slice of Americana that is truly one of a kind.