2010.09.01 Please pass the mustard

Written by David Green.

(an old one from April 24, 1996)

By Colleen Leddy

On our way to Wisconsin to visit friends near Milwaukee, David made it clear: “You get the museum. I get the rest of the trip.” He was talking “column material,” of course. And although it was an unfair breakdown, I accepted the terms of the trip. We would be going two hours out of our way so I could finally realize my dream: to visit the Mount Horeb Mustard Museum.

I wanted to visit the museum ever since I first read about it in the Detroit Free Press several years ago. Since then I’ve read about it in other publications and I was always amused by the “curator” Barry Levenson.

Barry, if I remember correctly, was a Boston lawyer who quit his job to become founder and curator of the museum that, along with his zany antics, put Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, on the map. Newspapers from around the country, as well as national magazines, have featured the museum and the story of a man who stood before a grocery store shelf of mustards nearly 10 years ago and heard a voice: “If you collect us, they will come.” And, as it says in a Mustard Museum brochure, “He did and they have.”

Given the personality of the curator, I was certain the Mustard Museum had to be an interesting place. Which is why I forced my family to press on even though we were delayed twice by a dead battery before we even left Milwaukee. Even though we took the wrong exit twice. Even though we meandered lost through construction zones. Even though snow reduced visibility for stretches of highway.

I wanted to see where the World’s Longest Mustard Pass first took place—where last year 1,204 people “passed the mustard” on National Mustard Day. (It’s August 3, this year.)

Why would I be so possessed? I don’t know. I like mustard. And it’s true, I’m a bit of a mustard snob—but only toward French’s mustard. I’ve always hated that stuff. Gulden’s used to be my favorite, but that no longer cuts it. Too tame. I’m even moving beyond Grey Poupon which is a cut above Gulden’s in the mustard hierarchy.

My current favorite is Edmond Fallot’s Honey and Balsamic Dijon Mustard which I discovered at Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor. But I’m not nutso about mustard. David might disagree. He’d point to that Fallot mustard—it’s just too much for him. He’ll admit though, that in 14 years of marriage, I’ve taken him up a notch—he now prefers Gulden’s to French’s.

All of those mustards can be found among the 2,300 jars on display in the Mount Horeb Mustard Museum. It’s a small place, the museum. It takes up just one storefront on Main Street. The adjoining storefront takes up the other half of Barry’s mustard enterprises—the Fancy Food Emporium. Here you can buy an incredible variety of mustards from around the world, mustard museum memorabilia, and the trademark “Poupon U” collection of t-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, pennants, mugs, and even a Poupon U diploma.

Yes, the museum is small, but it’s full of fun. A marquis above a large television proclaims: “MustardPiece Theatre.” Here mustard lovers can watch an informative mustard video and travel to the mustard fields of Canada, the sausage carts of Germany, and the elegant restaurants of Dijon, France.

Displays are a parody of an art museum. On one wall hangs a display of domestic mustards with this identification card:

Still Life with Mustard (1994)

Barry Levenson, USA (1948-    )

Mustard Products and Painted Wood

I felt reverent when I entered the museum. This was the moment I’d been waiting for. The rest of my family took one minute to look the place over, then made a fast exit. They spent the next hour down the block drinking milkshakes and looking for a bathroom. And waiting for me to come to my senses.

But I was transfixed by the joint: jars of mustard everywhere. A mustard catalog of the many products they sell. A mustard newsletter—“The Proper Mustard.” A sample jar of the famous Slimm and Nunne Mustard (“Your chances of finding a better mustard are Slimm & Nunne” the label proclaims) made by the curator himself in small batches. (I bought the last available jar.) Books about mustard. Framed cartoons about mustard including those depicting the continuing adventures of the superhero, Mustard Man. Aprons featuring a Plochman’s squeeze bottle and the words “Squeeze Me.”

A dream come true, it was. And an hour certainly wasn’t enough time to savor the experience. I hope my family lets me linger longer when I realize my other dream—to visit the garlic fields in the South of France.

If you’re looking for a laugh I recommend a visit to the Mustard Museum. There’s no hurry though, as a birthday card available at the museum says, “You’re never too old to cut the mustard.”

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