Why Middleton, Wisconsin Is The Mustard Capital Of The World

The people of Dijon, France may beg to differ, but some condiment connoisseurs regard Middleton, Wisconsin as the mustard capital of the world. And while the community located about 15 miles northwest of Madison doesn't hold an official title, it does lay claim to fame as home to the world's most extensive mustard collections. That collection, including mustard varieties from each of the 50 U.S. states and more than 70 countries worldwide, is on display at the National Mustard Museum.

It all began in 1986 when the New York Mets pulled out a seventh-game win to beat the Boston Red Sox and claim the World Series Championship title. While Red Sox fans across the nation were drowning their sorrows in buckets of beer, Barry Levenson was roaming the aisles of an all-night supermarket disconsolately perusing jars of mustard. Levenson, who was serving as the Wisconsin assistant attorney general when his beloved baseball team dropped the ball in an oh-so-close quest to win the World Series, insists the mustard spoke to him, whispering, "If you collect us, they will come." (Sounds like a tongue-in-cheek "Field of Dreams" baseball reference).

By his own account, Levenson heeded the voice. On an impulse, he purchased a dozen jars of mustard and, at that moment, he vowed to collect and curate the world's largest display of prepared mustards.

He built it and they came

After that initial purchase, Levenson began casually building a personal mustard collection while continuing to serve as Wisconsin's assistant attorney general. In 1991, he was in Washington, D.C. to argue a case before the Supreme Court when he experienced another divine inspiration. This time it was a mustard jar sitting atop a discarded room-service trolley in the corridor outside his hotel room. Levenson snatched the jar, put it in his pocket, and won his case. Mustard, it seems, is his lucky charm. Shortly after that courtroom win, Levenson left his job to pursue mustard collecting on a full-time basis. In 1992, he opened the National Museum of Mustard in Middleton.

Visitors to the Wisconsin museum, often cited as one of the most unusual museums in the U.S., discover a world that extends far beyond mustard's role at baseball stadiums and sidewalk pretzel carts. The curated collection features more than 6,000 individual jars and containers of the ubiquitous condiment in addition to interactive exhibits, a tasting bar, and a gift shop offering what the museum describes as the widest selection of mustard on earth. The National Mustard Museum also hosts an annual World-Wide Mustard Competition and a festival timed to coincide with National Mustard Day.

Whether or not that makes Middleton, Wisconsin the mustard capital of the world is open to debate. Either way, the museum in a suburban community in the middle of the U.S. is a testament to one of the world's oldest condiments.