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I should admit from the outset that I was not well disposed toward the Mustard Museum of Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, when I set out to visit it last fall. I had just left my lover of three years and was heartbroken, in that state of emotional dishabille better suited to the glamorous desuetude of Paris than to the earnest vacuity of the American Midwest. I was, in short, very cranky.

So perhaps I merely imagined the chagrin of those patrons I watched entering the Mount Horeb Mustard Museum that sunny October Sunday, a steady stream of visitors in feed caps and heavy woolen coats, who seemed possessed of the embarrassed jocularity usually reserved for young patrons of porn shops — an attitude that seemed meant to say, We’re just here on a lark, not taking this to heart. But by the time I left the museum that day, I thought perhaps we should.

There is almost a one-to-one ratio of mustards to people in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, where a sign posted at the city limit notes a population of 6,609 and the museum boasts more than 4,800 mustards on display or for sale.

Founded in 1992 by a former assistant attorney general (only in the Midwest do politicians leave public office to create a condiment shrine), the museum is one in a series of shops along Main Street in an unprepossessing town some 16 miles southwest of Madison. The place is thick (not to say, slathered) with mustard jokes, its interior painted (what else?) mustard yellow, including the hammered tin ceiling and the stained wood floors; there is a quote from Pliny on a handbill in the storefront window (“The mind boggles at how many mustards there are”) and countless mustard tchotchkes — all with the dated camp aesthetic of the 1980s (think John Waters, Pee-wee Herman), which has not, alas, worn well.

Despite mustard’s history as a condiment to popes and kings, the museum is ostentatiously common: With “the world’s first and only mustard vending machine” and abundant collegiate merchandise — sweatshirts, pennants, and even toilet seats from Poupon U (sound it out…get it?), billed as “America’s Mustard College” — it is hokey as all get out. The sort of thing Midwesterners leave their homeland to escape (at least I did).

The museum comprises two large rooms — the first a retail store through which you enter; the second (to the left of this and down a short flight of carpeted steps) looks like what another era might have termed a family rumpus room, if one’s family were obsessed with condiments. There two dozen glass cases contain mustard tins and jars, displays of mustards from around the world, and what (for lack of a better term) might be called mustard paraphernalia — e.g., a framed LP of Lawrence Cook’s “Too Much Mustard”; Vicki Baum’s pulp novel The Mustard Seed, which the New York Times called “one of the strangest books of the year”; and a funnel-like Austrian mustard dispenser suspended from the ceiling, which at 4kg looks more medical than culinary (and which a docent note promises will bring good luck if squeezed, its graying nozzle suggesting a hopeful audience). There is even a framed photo of a mustard flower in bloom, set on a case, like the photo of a favorite relative or a guru.

It seems curious that in an age of global crisis (genocide and famine, climate change, terrorism, and government torture) we should lavish such ardent attention on food — particularly on that most modest member of the culinary realm, condiments. And I can’t help but recall those Germans about whom Leonard Woolf wrote in his diary, while traveling in Berlin in the 1930s — he was struck by the lavish attention given to pets, which he thought a marker of dangerously distorted sentiment, a sign that something was terribly amiss among a people where emotions were so misapplied. So I wonder what we are balancing with our ardor. What unsettling appetites these museums may distract us from.

It is perhaps appropriate that camping food should be celebrated via camp, but the whole thing left me cold — the sort of self-consciously kitschy tourist trap that the Midwest seems to specialize in (think: Wall Drug, the Corn Palace, Mount Rushmore), a joint to avoid even in a kitsch tour of the region, unlike the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed gas station in Cloquet, Minnesota, which I highly recommend. Then I came on the Tasting Table.

Tucked discretely at the back of the store, with a refrigerator case behind it containing each of the mustards on sale, this is the altar (or perhaps the tabernacle) in this condiment shrine, adorned only with a box of tiny plastic spoons, a basket of pretzel sticks, and Kleenex (vital given the potency of some mustards).

Here one can sample black truffle mustard, fresh from France, which boasts the terroir of wine and seems fated to accompany filet mignon and asparagus. Here tangerine-habanero mustard evokes the citrus-scented wind of a March evening in Tucson, and seems to insist on being spread on grilled chicken, served with a salad of tangerines, red onions, and greens. I was loath to try the Praline Mustard Glaze, but it, too, proved missionary, converting me. (When the clerk suggested the praline mustard glaze would be great on sweet potatoes and ice cream, to my amazement, I had to agree.)

Most remarkable of all was Uncle Roy’s Earl Grey Moffat Mustard — which a fellow taster described as “like perfume.” Rich in bergamot, the flavor floated to the roof of the mouth, so when I glimpsed across the room a display featuring “Spirit Mustards,” I thought briefly that they meant this in a religious sense.

The shop’s mustards are so numerous as to require division by type and country. Among fruit mustards are apple, Key lime, raspberry, blueberry, and citrus mustards (with exotic pineapple, lemon and thyme, and prickly pear honey). There are honey mustards. Garlic mustards. Herb. Deli. Dijon. Onion. Cajun. Horseradish. Spirit mustards (including stout, pale ale, Champagne, Grand Marnier, vodka, bourbon, whiskey, Zinfandel orange, Jim Beam, Jack Daniels, and Tangy Triple Sec). Among the exotic mustards — as if the others weren’t exotic enough — are orange espresso, merlot chocolate, molasses, Cuban mojo, and wasabi lime.

In the course of the two hours I spent tasting mustards, I developed the monomaniacal lust usually reserved for oenophiles, art collectors at auction, the religious, and heartbroken. In the end, I will buy two dozen jars — I simply can’t imagine our parting.

The sad beauty of the Midwest seems the right setting for this unsung hero of the culinary realm, which — like a middle child, like the Midwest itself, like the lover I’ve just left — seems defensive with neglect, but proves heartbreakingly appealing if given a chance. • 10 February 2009


EJ Levy's essays have appeared in many places, including Best American Essays 2005, The Puschart Prize XXXI Anthology, and The Touchstone Anthology of Contempoary Creative Nonfiction, as well as in The Missouri Review, Orion, Out, Utne Reader, Salmagundi, and The Nation. She is an assistant professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia.