Friday, February 20, 2009

Looks Bad, Tastes Good

E.J. Levy checked out the Mustard Museum in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin.

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.

He's not terribly impressed at first, but something changes his mind.

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).

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).

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.