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home : people : opinions June 25, 2016

1/4/2014 2:53:00 PM
Casual, Cursory, Candid, Cobbled Comments
By Cecil Acuff

How many Gentle Journal Readers know there's a Mustard Museum in America? Well, there is. It's located in Middleton, Wisconsin.

The earliest reference to the 1-2 mm (1 mm equals .254 inches)mustard seed is in India, 5th century B.C., from three different plants: Black mustard, Brown mustard, and White mustard.

Jesus said, in one of the several translations,"Because of your little faith, I truly say unto you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you."

Three teen-age girls were standing in front of the gift shop in Middleton's largest museum when curator Barry Levenson asked,"Want to do the Poupon U. cheer?" The four chanted, "Who needs Harvard, who needs Yale? At Poupon U., you'll never fail."

The 64-year-old Levenson is ring leader and CMO "Chief Mustard Officer," of the 21-year-old museum.

Visitors will find one wall packed with 475 old-timey mustard tins next to floor-to-ceiling cases of yellowish squeeze bottles from Israel, Russia, and Vietnam. Also, they can look at an original Mustard Man's mascot, and snippets of an old TV show,"Hot Dog," starring Woody Allen and Jonathan Winters.

Mustard, a centuries-old pungent paste made from crushed yellow or brown mustard seeds, is more popular than ever in the U.S. Sales in America were $508 million in 2012, an 11% jump since 2007.

But, lately there have been questions about whether the National Mustard Museum can "Cut the mustard." Middleton, just outside Madison, Wisconsin's Capitol, had high hopes in 2009, when it wooed the popular attraction away from Middleton to nearby Mount Horeb for a downtown re-development project. The county lent the museum $200,000, and a renovated two-story brick building was opened.

Mike Davis, city manager of 18,000-population Middleton, said the Mustard Museum had a great reputation in the Madison area and mustard lovers all over the country. "We were looking for huge crowds, but the Museum opened at exactly the wrong time."

Foot traffic was expected to be 25,000 annually, and to double in the larger location. Mustard sales jumped by 20%- to cover maintenance costs. Attendance went up 5%, but shoppers were spending less.

Former Wisconsin Levenson assistant attorney general, who once argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, sank his life's savings into the museum, but, he didn't have enough money to pump in more cash. He was only able to make monthly payments after the county agreed to reduce them by one-half.

Levenson says he stumbled into the mustard game the night his beloved Boston Red Sox lost the 1986 World Series. He wandered into a Madison grocery store, seeking a new hobby to replace baseball. Then, he became fascinated by the many varieties of mustard, and came home with 10 jars of mustard. His collection soon grew to hundreds, forcing him to move everything to a shed in his backyard.

In 1992, he left the law, and transported his collection to downtown Mount Horeb. The final jars travelled a half-mile human chain with participants actually saying, "pass the mustard, please."

The museum has always been free, financed by sales at the gift shop, which boasts about 450 mustard varieties. They range from a $3.75 bottle of Boetje's Stone Ground to the $22 Pommery Moutarde Royale, a mustard in a black crock. Visitors can sample any mustard, and Patti Levenson, aka Mrs. Mustard, hands out spoons laden with the various condiments. Mr. Levenson brags that a ketchup museum "would fit inside a phone booth." But, ketchup sales were $73 million in 2012, topping mustard by a long shot.

Mr. Levenson sent 400 letters to every person in phone books named Mustard in the early 1990s, inviting them to a family re-union. Seventy-eight-old Bob Mustard recalls driving his 1939 mustard-yellow Chevy from Nebraska to Mount Horeb. "Mustard is kind of a funny name, so I enjoyed the get-togeher and all the Mustardness."

Mr. Levenson still holds the annual "National Mustard Day" which draws thousands. Greg Bloom, owner of GMB Specialty Foods, said being named Grand Champion in 2002 was like receiving an Oscar. Levenson said, "I know people think we're crazy to be obsessed with mustard, but, we're a respite from the wild and crazy world out there. We're proud of that."

Henry Miller:"Americans will eat garbage provided it's sprinkled liberally with ketchup, mustard, chili sauce, tabasco sauce, cayenne pepper, or, any other condiment which destroys a dish's original flavor.

"Florence Nightingale."So, never lose an opportunity to urge a practical beginning, no matter how small. It's wonderful how often in such situations, the mustard seed germinates and roots itself." Cecil Acuff:"Mustard seed, Oh Mustard seed, how small thou art. A meal without thee, is like putting the horse before the cart."

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