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Piling On the Mustard, With Relish

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Behold, mustard:

Basil pesto mustard and merlot chocolate mustard. Lemon peppercorn mustard and bourbon molasses mustard. Curried apricot. Martini. Key lime macadamia mustard.

Mustard in jars, in tubes, in pots. Mustard from Azerbaijan and mustard from Zimbabwe. Mustard seeds, mustard rubs. Mustard ointments galore.

It’s all here, lovingly displayed, meticulously cataloged, at the Mount Horeb Mustard Museum, a shrine to the pungent condiment that--according to curator Barry Levenson--goes perfectly with everything from hot dogs to creme brulee.

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In the great American tradition of blending kitsch and culture, the storefront museum has been drawing tourists by the tens of thousands to this quirky little town for a decade. With its 3,950 jars of mustard stacked on floor-to-ceiling shelves, it occupies the first ranks of what academics politely call “oddball museums"--exhibits that expound obsessively on a mundane theme, be it vinegar or Jell-O, bananas or Spam.

“I consider them American treasures,” said Christopher Steiner, a professor of museum studies at Connecticut College.

Some are sponsored by manufacturers as a tribute to a popular product (or a shameless marketing ploy, as the case may be). Hormel Foods, for instance, just opened a Spam Museum in Austin, Minn.; after walking through a giant blue-and-yellow Spam tin, tourists join a mock production line to practice canning salted pork shoulder.

Others highlight regional ties. The Jell-O Museum in LeRoy, N.Y., run by a historical society, describes how a local carpenter invented the jiggly dessert--while experimenting with a laxative tea.

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But for sheer loopy joy, nothing can compete with the collections amassed by single-minded zealots determined to know everything there is to know about pretzels or Pez candy.

No one is quite sure how many of these oddball exhibits exist, because many are set up in private homes, open by appointment only. Officially, the Institute of Museums and Library Services in Washington classifies them as “collections of curiosities,” not educational enough to gain true museum status. But some academics are not so quick to dismiss them as random junk.

“There’s something about bringing [ordinary objects] together as a collection that lets you see a phenomenon in a way you wouldn’t otherwise.... And there’s something about the relentless focus of really hard-core collectors that’s impressive and intriguing in its own right,” said Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, a professor at New York University who has written extensively about the interplay between food and culture.

“What the Museum of Modern Art does in classifying paintings by genre and period--that’s the same thing that the Mustard Museum or the beer can museum or the nut museum is doing,” Steiner said. “Only, unlike modern minimalist art, these museums are dealing with something that everyone can relate to.”

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Take bananas. They merit not one, but two packed-to-brimming museums. A warehouse in Altadena is stuffed with 17,000 objects, from a banana putter for the golfer to banana-alcohol soda to a banana-shaped couch. And a yellow-fruit fan in Auburn, Wash., has opened a more modest museum in her home with 4,000 items of banana memorabilia.

Or consider the International Vinegar Museum in Roslyn, S.D., featuring a tasting bar where visitors can daub their tongues with coconut vinegar, pecan vinegar, or vinegar flavored with violets. Curator Lawrence Diggs (who answers the phone with an exuberant, “Hello, Vinegar Man here”) has amassed more than 300 varieties from near and far--far being Sri Lanka and Mongolia. The museum attracts about 4,000 visitors a year to Roslyn (population 250).

That’s 4,000 people a year driving through South Dakota to look at vinegar.

Ten times that many flock to the bright yellow halls of the Mustard Museum here in the rolling farmland of southwest Wisconsin.

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“It’s fantastic,” explained Jan Wegenka, 71, a Michigan native making a repeat visit with his wife. The one drawback, he said, was that the free pretzels provided for tasting did not, so to speak, cut the mustard.

“You should come here with a Polish kielbasa,” he advised.

In retrospect, it might have been more practical, Levenson says, to set up his homage to “Shakespeare’s favorite condiment” in a more lively hub of tourism. But, like Vinegar Man (who rather wistfully promotes Roslyn as “equally close to all the coasts”), Levenson figured true pilgrims would make the trek to his shrine no matter the address. So he leased a storefront on Main Street in Mount Horeb, his adopted hometown.

As it turned out, this funky community of 4,000 was a perfect match. Mount Horeb, about half an hour’s drive from Madison, is not your typical Midwestern farm town. There’s a thriving Wiccan community. A dozen boutiques sell crafts and crystals. And the business district is dubbed “The Trollway” because it’s lined with little wooden trolls.

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The Mustard Museum beckons passing tourists with 7,700 square feet of what Levenson calls “the condiment of good taste and good breeding.” More than half the space is given over to the gift shop, which sells dozens of exotic brands in a swirl of sweet and spicy scents wafting over from the tasting table.

The museum, which does not charge admission, displays mustard remedies, mustard ads and antique mustard pots. The chief draw, though, is the wall lined with mustards arranged alphabetically by origin--the 38 from New Zealand wedged between the two from Nepal and the six from Norway.

Tourists just stand there and gape.

Attorney Susan Hutton, a Wisconsin native, brought a Spanish exchange student to see the collection. It seemed her duty as a host.

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“He had to come see this. It’s such great Americana,” Hutton explained.

The student, 17-year-old Jaime Fontanals, looked a bit baffled, but pronounced himself suitably impressed: “It is an original museum,” he said.

Even aficionados of rival condiments are envious.

“We want to go there someday to see how they do it,” said Mike Gassman, president of the fan club for the World’s Largest Ketchup Bottle, a roadside icon in Collinsville, Ill. “Of course,” he added, in a conspiratorial whisper, “we’ll have to go incognito.”

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As most visitors soon find out, the curator is key to the Mount Horeb mustard experience.

Levenson, 54, bounds frenetically through his museum, dark hair flopping on his forehead, T-shirt invariably emblazoned with mustard propaganda. He may pull out a mustard magazine ad from the 1920s or direct a tourist to a particularly beautiful mustard pot. Now and then, he’ll order a hapless customer in his gift shop to sing the Poupon U anthem he composed to the tune of the Notre Dame fight song:

“Eat, eat, at old Poupon U, bratwursts and hot dogs, hamburgers, too, all with mustard spread on thick. We never eat ketchup because it makes us sick!”

When he’s not accosting tourists or writing nonfiction (his latest book is “Habeas Codfish: Reflections on Food and the Law”), Levenson is tinkering in his kitchen. His most recent concoction: mustard creme brulee. He’s still fine-tuning the recipe. But he insists it tastes almost great. In the meantime, he offers mustard brownies for dessert.

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“They’re really good,” he insists. “You can add mustard to chocolate cake too. It intensifies the flavor; gives it a little kick.”

Levenson, it should be obvious, is a man obsessed.

It all began when his beloved Boston Red Sox lost the World Series in 1986. Levenson found himself wandering the aisles of a supermarket in Madison at 2:30 a.m., looking for something he could collect as a distraction from baseball. He landed in the mustard aisle and picked up 10 jars that looked intriguing.

“I was like a little kid with his first pack of baseball cards,” Levenson said. “I started wondering--are there 100 brands? Are there 200? It was an open-ended adventure.”

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So he began prowling groceries and food shows. As his collection grew, Levenson fantasized about leaving his job as an assistant state attorney general and spreading the gospel of mustard full time. He finally emptied his savings account and went for it.

A decade later, his museum has signed on several mustard companies and a pretzel maker as corporate sponsors. The gift shop racks up annual sales of close to $900,000. Mount Horeb closes off Main Street for the annual Mustard Day street fair, which features free hot dogs for all (free, that is, unless you want ketchup, in which case, there’s a $10 charge). Levenson even puts out a monthly e-mail newsletter for condiment aficionados. It is, as he puts it, “yellow journalism at its best.”

Levenson’s wife, Patti (they met at a mustard tasting in Milwaukee), answers to “Mrs. Mustard” and works beside him in the museum, having convinced herself that her husband’s passion is more than a hobby--it’s a calling. A self-described “total foodie,” she even puts up with the mustard cuisine--though she’s not sure about the creme brulee. “It’s not to where I love it yet,” she says.

As the head of this mustard empire, Levenson earns less than half what he made as a prosecutor. But he would never go back.

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“I get to see smiles on a lot of people’s faces,” he said. “That’s not something a lot of lawyers can say.”

Indeed, coaxing smiles is another of Levenson’s passions.

He loves to tell the story of the day in 1987 when he argued a case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court with a jar of mustard in his pocket. He had spotted the unusual brand on a room service tray as he left his hotel, and scooped it up.

“If you think about it, though,” he says with a grin, “the Supreme Court is where Felix Frankfurter once worked, and Warren Burger too, so there’s poetic justice for you.” The historic jar of Dickinson’s stone ground is honored with a special display in the museum. And yes, he won the case.

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“A lot of people come in here and say, ‘You used to be a lawyer, and now you’re doing this?’ ” Levenson said.

“But I’ve got a greater opportunity to enrich people’s lives by selling mustard than by practicing criminal law.”

And he might yet sell Mrs. Mustard on the creme brulee.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Fun Food Museum Web Sites

No one knows for sure how many oddball food museums exist, but cyberspace is full of them. To explore some of these virtual shrines to mustard, vinegar and other products, check out these Web sites:

Mount Horeb Mustard Museum: www.mustardweb.com

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The International Vinegar Museum: www.vinegarman.com

The Dr Pepper Museum: www.drpeppermuseum.com

The Burger Museum: www.burgerweb.com

The Jell-O Museum: www.jellomuseum.com

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The Hershey Museum: www.hersheymuseum.org

The Spam Museum: www.spam.com

The Washington Banana Museum:

www.geocities.com/NapaValley/1799/

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The International Banana Club Museum: www.bananaclub.com

The Nut Museum: www.roadsideamerica.com/nut/

The Salt Museum: www.co.onondaga.ny.us/Parks/salt.html

The Beer Can Museum:

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https://kevslog.tripod.com/ETBCM/id3.html

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Fans of condiments other than mustard might want to check out these Web sites, though they are not associated with museums:

www.angelfire.com/punk/mayonnaise

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www.ketchup.wonderland.org

www.clearfour.com/condiment

www.catsupbottle.com

Source: Times research

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Historical Spread

Mustard is one of the world’s oldest known condiments. Mustard seeds have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs.

Medieval monks perfected the art of making a mustard sauce in the Dijon region of France in the early 14th century.

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Horseradish mustard from the English town of Tewkesbury gained fame in the 17th century. Shakespeare even alluded to it in Henry IV Part II: “His wit’s as thick as Tewkesbury mustard!”

Francis French, a New York spice merchant, developed a mild yellow mustard sauce at the beginning of the 20th century. It was unveiled, with great fanfare, at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis--along with other culinary treasures such as the hot dog and the ice cream cone.

Over the years, mustard has been touted as a remedy for everything from arthritis to toothaches to sore throats to snake bites. One Depression-era magazine ad for Coleman’s double superfine mustard advised: “When your tired husband returns from his day’s work, serve Coleman’s mustard with his dinner. Lack of exercise and the confinement of office work tend to produce indigestion.” The mustard, the ad counseled, was a perfect tonic.

Source: Barry Levenson, curator, Mount Horeb Mustard Museum; French’s Mustard

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