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THE NATION | COLUMN ONE

Piling On the Mustard, With Relish

A museum in a Wisconsin farm town offers a rich slice of Americana. Such quirky collections are far more than idle curiosities.

October 11, 2002|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOUNT HOREB, Wis. — Behold, mustard:

Basil pesto mustard and merlot chocolate mustard. Lemon peppercorn mustard and bourbon molasses mustard. Curried apricot. Martini. Key lime macadamia mustard.

Mustard in jars, in tubes, in pots. Mustard from Azerbaijan and mustard from Zimbabwe. Mustard seeds, mustard rubs. Mustard ointments galore.

It's all here, lovingly displayed, meticulously cataloged, at the Mount Horeb Mustard Museum, a shrine to the pungent condiment that--according to curator Barry Levenson--goes perfectly with everything from hot dogs to creme brulee.

In the great American tradition of blending kitsch and culture, the storefront museum has been drawing tourists by the tens of thousands to this quirky little town for a decade. With its 3,950 jars of mustard stacked on floor-to-ceiling shelves, it occupies the first ranks of what academics politely call "oddball museums"--exhibits that expound obsessively on a mundane theme, be it vinegar or Jell-O, bananas or Spam.

"I consider them American treasures," said Christopher Steiner, a professor of museum studies at Connecticut College.

Some are sponsored by manufacturers as a tribute to a popular product (or a shameless marketing ploy, as the case may be). Hormel Foods, for instance, just opened a Spam Museum in Austin, Minn.; after walking through a giant blue-and-yellow Spam tin, tourists join a mock production line to practice canning salted pork shoulder.

Others highlight regional ties. The Jell-O Museum in LeRoy, N.Y., run by a historical society, describes how a local carpenter invented the jiggly dessert--while experimenting with a laxative tea.

But for sheer loopy joy, nothing can compete with the collections amassed by single-minded zealots determined to know everything there is to know about pretzels or Pez candy.

No one is quite sure how many of these oddball exhibits exist, because many are set up in private homes, open by appointment only. Officially, the Institute of Museums and Library Services in Washington classifies them as "collections of curiosities," not educational enough to gain true museum status. But some academics are not so quick to dismiss them as random junk.

"There's something about bringing [ordinary objects] together as a collection that lets you see a phenomenon in a way you wouldn't otherwise.... And there's something about the relentless focus of really hard-core collectors that's impressive and intriguing in its own right," said Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, a professor at New York University who has written extensively about the interplay between food and culture.

"What the Museum of Modern Art does in classifying paintings by genre and period--that's the same thing that the Mustard Museum or the beer can museum or the nut museum is doing," Steiner said. "Only, unlike modern minimalist art, these museums are dealing with something that everyone can relate to."

Take bananas. They merit not one, but two packed-to-brimming museums. A warehouse in Altadena is stuffed with 17,000 objects, from a banana putter for the golfer to banana-alcohol soda to a banana-shaped couch. And a yellow-fruit fan in Auburn, Wash., has opened a more modest museum in her home with 4,000 items of banana memorabilia.

Or consider the International Vinegar Museum in Roslyn, S.D., featuring a tasting bar where visitors can daub their tongues with coconut vinegar, pecan vinegar, or vinegar flavored with violets. Curator Lawrence Diggs (who answers the phone with an exuberant, "Hello, Vinegar Man here") has amassed more than 300 varieties from near and far--far being Sri Lanka and Mongolia. The museum attracts about 4,000 visitors a year to Roslyn (population 250).

That's 4,000 people a year driving through South Dakota to look at vinegar.

Ten times that many flock to the bright yellow halls of the Mustard Museum here in the rolling farmland of southwest Wisconsin.

"It's fantastic," explained Jan Wegenka, 71, a Michigan native making a repeat visit with his wife. The one drawback, he said, was that the free pretzels provided for tasting did not, so to speak, cut the mustard.

"You should come here with a Polish kielbasa," he advised.

In retrospect, it might have been more practical, Levenson says, to set up his homage to "Shakespeare's favorite condiment" in a more lively hub of tourism. But, like Vinegar Man (who rather wistfully promotes Roslyn as "equally close to all the coasts"), Levenson figured true pilgrims would make the trek to his shrine no matter the address. So he leased a storefront on Main Street in Mount Horeb, his adopted hometown.

As it turned out, this funky community of 4,000 was a perfect match. Mount Horeb, about half an hour's drive from Madison, is not your typical Midwestern farm town. There's a thriving Wiccan community. A dozen boutiques sell crafts and crystals. And the business district is dubbed "The Trollway" because it's lined with little wooden trolls.

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