Tucked away in a small lakeside town outside Madison, Wisconsin, is a museum dedicated to a common staple found in most kitchens.
To some, mustard is a must have for hot dogs and hamburgers, but to Barry and Patti Levenson, it’s much more. The husband and wife team, known as “Mr. and Mrs. Mustard” to locals, run the National Mustard Museum in Middleton, Wisconsin, a three-hour drive from Northwest Indiana.
The museum is home to more than 5,900 mustards from all 50 states and more than 70 countries, as well as collections of mustard pots, antique tins and jars, and vintage advertisements.
How the museum came to be is somewhat of a divine intervention.
Barry Levenson began collecting jars of mustard as a hobby the morning after his beloved Boston Red Sox lost the 1986 World Series.
“I was so depressed that I couldn’t sleep, so I went to an all-night supermarket and roamed the aisles,” he said. “When I passed the mustards, I heard a voice, ‘If you collect us, they will come.’”
At the time, he was an assistant attorney general for the state of Wisconsin, and a few months later when arguing a case at the U.S. Supreme Court, he received another sign.
“I found a little jar of mustard on a discarded room service tray on the way to the court,” he said. “I took it with me and argued the case with that jar of mustard in my pocket. I won and I’m sure the mustard made a difference.”
In 1991, Levenson left his stable job as a government lawyer to open his mustard museum. Perhaps improbable in its concept, the museum has gone on to worldwide fame and is one of Wisconsin’s most popular attractions. The museum has even been featured on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “Jeopardy!” and countless other national television and radio shows.
He even points to mustard as the beginning of his marriage.
“I met Patti at a mustard-tasting event I did in Milwaukee,” he said. “Like a jar of mustard you see in the supermarket, it was love at first squeeze.”
Despite being found on dozens of published lists of unusual and bizarre museums, Levenson says the National Mustard Museum has a serious mission of promoting the public’s appreciation of a healthy and flavorful condiment that dates back centuries.
However, the museum’s methods are anything but, focusing on colorful, fun exhibits that entertain guests who visit the home to the world’s largest collection of mustards and mustard memorabilia.
Levenson’s favorite exhibit showcases a collection of antique tins, but he also enjoys the mustard paintings he has on display.
“They are, of course, parodies of some of the world’s most famous paintings,” he said.
The onsite gift shop also houses mustards that visitors can take with them when they leave, as well as salsas, hot sauces, preserves and other delicacies. For those who aren’t able to make the trip, the museum operates an online store where a variety of mustards are shipped straight to a shopper’s home.
The museum hosts a National Mustard Day event the first Saturday in August, attracting about 7,000 visitors. The event includes live music, hot dogs with mustard, mustard games for children and other activities.
Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., the National Mustard Museum is at 7477 Hubbard Ave., Middleton, about an hour from the Wisconsin Dells and 90 minutes from Milwaukee. The museum, however, is closed on some holidays, and on Tuesdays through April 1.
Admission is free. For more information, call 1-800-438-6878 or go to mustardmuseum.com.