If you’re looking for an argument that doesn’t have to do with politics, I suggest Best Condiments. No matter where you are, who you’re with, or what condiments make their way into the running, you’re in for a rollicking debate. You’re welcome.
The starting point here in the States often regards the Ketchup-Mustard-Mayonnaise trinity. I happen to fall squarely on the mustard side of this one, with the caveat that mayonnaise has some important uses (generally as the base in homemade dipping sauces and the binding agent in certain sandwiches).
But I could live in a ketchup-free universe without knowing the difference. If I want tomato, I’ll eat a tomato. When adding flavor to something, I want tangy, spicy, sour. Something with bite. Think pickle relish, vinaigrette, ginger, lime. And mustard.
Even as a child, my mind boggled when people asked for ketchup and skipped mustard, but I guess everyone’s tastebuds are different. More mustard for me.
So. One day in early January 2016, I was tunneling aimlessly through Wikipedia, distracting myself from divorce-induced stress. I’d just established the residency required for a divorce filing in Wisconsin, and grappling with the logistical mess was bringing up some overwhelming emotions. My Wikipedia-dive, then, was an attempt to stay focused on the present and future. At the moment, I was reading up on Middleton, Wisconsin, a city joined at Madison’s western hip, because my weather app fervently believed I lived there even though I technically lived on the Madison side of the border.
I skimmed through census data, and brief descriptions of municipal services and school districting until I finally reached Attractions, where I stopped in bewilderment. Some wonderful human being had established a National Mustard Museum not fifteen minutes away from my new apartment in Madison.
A bizarrely-specific and obscure tourist attraction devoted entirely to my condiment of choice? This was a New Year’s Divorce Miracle. I had to go.
Official lore states that the Mustard Museum began in the aftermath of the Boston Red Sox’ 1986 World Series defeat. Barry Levenson, a devoted fan, was wandering off the sharp initial edge of disappointment by exploring an all-night supermarket, and became fascinated by the vast array of mustards available down the condiment aisle. So he began collecting them.
And then began collecting mustards from farther afield. Mustard from every one of the 50 United States. Specialty mustards. Artisanal mustards. Foreign mustards.
Varieties of mustard seeds. Mustard literary references. Antique medicinal mustard. Vintage mustard advertisements. Antique commercial mustard crockery from France. Vintage mustard packaging. Fine bone china mustard bowls.
Mustard puns. Pristine vintage mustard-themed Valentines. A mustard mascot costume. Barry Levenson collected until he had amassed the world’s largest collection of mustard and mustard memorabilia. And then he kept collecting.
Andrew volunteered to escort me to this magical establishment before January had ended. Such a trip was, for me, a guaranteed win. The Museum itself is free to visitors, and I brought with me my usual approach when it comes to obscure tourist attractions: either it will be everything you dreamed and more, or it will be a disaster, but in either case it will be remarkable. Even the most mediocre tourist traps are extraordinary in their idiosyncrasies.
The National Mustard Museum is a riot of quirkiness. The curated collection fills the building’s downstairs section, and includes everything from the mustard itself to a broad range of mustard paraphernalia: the world’s only mustard vending machine; a medicine cabinet display full of antique mustard poultices, tinctures, powders, and bath mixes; a vintage pamphlet hysterically titled “Mustard Uses Mustered” featuring an illustration of Bottom (with donkey’s head, of course) and the fairy Mustardseed from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
One end of the museum is sectioned off into a “Mustardpiece Theatre,” which gave me no end of pleasure even before the feature film, Mustard: The Spice of Nations, which was produced by the BBC in 1983 and is technically part of the collection.
I chortled over tongue-in-cheek “historical artworks” sprinkled throughout the museum, delighted by the wonderland of puns I’d found myself within. The National Mustard Museum works, I think, because it realizes it’s a silly place. It won’t apologize for being a silly place, but it likewise won’t try to convince you that it isn’t.
I think, too, that I felt embraced by the place’s origin story. At a time when much of my life was spent in coping, I appreciated the humorous take on the 1986 baseball anecdote: mustard collecting as a pathway to the “meaning of life.”
The implied assertion of “Life disappointed me, so I responded with something wacky and harmless and here it is—what’re you gonna do?” made every possible kind of sense to me. Life had disappointed me, too. Yet here I was, happily fluttering from one ludicrous mustard-themed display to another, pointing things out to Andrew and laughing and clapping in delight. Wonders often come in the wake of disappointments.
Andrew’s favorite portion of our visit (and I am hard-pressed to disagree with him) was the free mustard tasting on the upper floor, at one end of the gift shop. Downstairs on display are over six thousand mustards not meant to be opened. But upstairs, the museum stocks the largest array of fresh mustards available for purchase in one place anywhere in the world—hundreds of varieties, most of which are available for tasting at their Tasting Bar.
Tasting at the Mustard Museum is treated with all the seriousness of a tasting at a winery, with suggestions given based on your preferences. Andrew and I sampled coarse mustards, smooth mustards, fruity mustards, sweet mustards, spicy mustards, root-beer-infused mustards, mustard made in a French monastery that had produced mustard for centuries, mustard made in Wisconsin and specially formulated with bratwurst and beer in mind. Mustard had always been my preferred condiment, but I had had no idea how wide a variety of mustard existed—nor how much more delicious so many of them were in comparison to plain yellow hot-dog mustard.
Stepping out of the Mustard Museum into the frigid Wisconsin January required the same internal recalibration as leaving a movie theatre or a long, engaging party. Our bag of specialty mustards in tow, Andrew and I quoted sections of Mustard: The Spice of Nations and laughed as we rushed to the car.
I’d expected laughter, but I didn’t expect my universe to have expanded so much. New Year’s Divorce Miracle, indeed—as had happened many times in the past several months, I was reminded how much more there was to see, do, touch, taste, smell, and hear in the wide wonderful world. Even something as simple as mustard—something I thought I understood!—had untold complexity and depth when given full attention and the space for investigation.
Exploring the National Mustard Museum was, I decided, just like walking through a personal essay: at turns socio-culturally nuanced, self-aware, hedonistic, informative, generous, and human. Mustard became an improbable but welcome part of my journey back to myself, and changed me in the process.
I now eat some variety of mustard almost every day.
What is your favorite wacky tourist destination? Has such a place ever served an important purpose in your own personal journey? Let us know in the comments!