Cutting into the mustard at Middleton museum

Barry and Patti Levenson, aka Mr. and Mrs. Mustard.

Shortly after our host delivered a platter of shaved corned beef and rye bread, he returned with a word of advice: If you need mayo, leave now.

Barry Levenson, founder of the National Mustard Museum, was smiling but not kidding. About 30 of us were at his Middleton museum on a recent Sunday afternoon, rating sweet to fiery mustards from as far away as Japan and New Zealand. Within three hours, we each would sample at least three dozen of the 280 entries in the 18th annual World-Wide Mustard Competition.

In the crowd: curious consumers, chefs with well-honed palates, thoughtful foodies and bloggers. I took my cues from my neighbor, chef Leah Caplan, chief food officer for Metcalfe’s Markets in Madison and Wauwatosa.

Taste once, from a tiny plastic spoon. Then dab mustard onto a tidbit of food and taste again. Write a line of first impressions and, at the end, assign points. Taste again, and again, when needed – or if you can’t resist.

Barry mused later about spending one-third of his life knee-deep in mustard. April 5 is his 20th anniversary for establishing the museum, which holds the world’s largest collection of mustard and related memorabilia.

The attorney-turned-entrepreneur has arguably become the nation’s most ardent advocate of the condiment.

“As challenging as it’s been economically,” Barry said, regarding his enterprise, “touching people’s lives is priceless.” It would be even better if they bought more mustard; admission to the nonprofit, basement museum and MustardPiece Theatre is by donation.

Barry recently was granted a one-year deferral of payments on a $200,000 Community Development Block Grant loan and subsequently declined a $1,000 offer from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to display an anti-meat ad at the business.

“Meat Doesn’t Cut the Mustard. Try Veggie Dogs,” PETA implored, in the proposed display.

“While we respect those who choose a vegetarian diet for all kinds of reasons, including ethical concerns, the National Mustard Museum should not be used as a forum for questioning the morality of those who choose to eat meat,” Barry decided.

“Neither would we allow the presence of an ad by a sausage company that insults vegetarians.”

He believes the museum and sales area remain important to the mustard industry and average consumer because “we’re an example of treating food with reverence” instead of “just throwing it into the stomach.”

Patti Levenson, aka Mrs. Mustard, said hosting the World-Wide Mustard Contest “is a huge way for us to find new and exotic flavors” to stock at the museum, which moved from small-town Mount Horeb to more urbane and high-traffic Middleton two years ago.

Patti wasn’t judging, but she confided a personal preference for a prickly pear Margarita mustard that had been entered.

The pepper hot category, with 26 entries, was the biggest and toughest to staff with judges. Less than 10 were entered in yellow mustard and mustard with garlic categories. “The chili heads have taken over the world,” Barry concluded.

His three-hour exercise was a good reminder of how different even honey mustard can taste and look.

Patti rattled off factors that make this so: type of honey, amount of honey, other flavor enhancers and whether the base is a from-scratch mustard or mixed into a commercial brand.

The deli/brown mustards were similarly complex, even though one judge simply concluded that “a good deli mustard is a sinus cleaner.”

In the museum are at least 5,300 artifacts and mustards. Possibly coming soon: around 50 RS Prussia mustard pots, antiques from a private collection that Barry describes as “gorgeous pieces of art.”

For sale in the upstairs shop are about 450 mustards from around the world, plus sauces, oils, vinegars and a growing assortment of unusual Wisconsin products and gifts (Poupon U apparel, foodie gag gifts, practical to elegant kitchen and meal service items).

You won’t find ketchup. You will find humor.

“We’re a refuge from normal sanity,” the man with the mustard-yellow wardrobe deadpans, “and sanity is overrated.”

For more about the National Mustard Museum, 7477 Hubbard Ave., Middleton: 800-438-6878. Round two of contest judging occurred March 25; then the winners in all 17 flavor categories were taken to Chicago, where the Windy City Chapter of the American Culinary Federation selects a grand champion.

Award winners will be recognized at the National Mustard Museum, probably sometime in May. Expect National Mustard Day, Aug. 4, to be celebrated in a big way (Culver’s created a mustard custard with ripple of salted caramel for the 2011 event).

An Oxford travel agent is organizing an Oct. 4-15 International Mustard Museum Tour to England and France, hosted by Barry and Patti Levenson. On the Outta Here! Travel itinerary are popular London and Paris tourist attractions, plus stops at mustard farms, factories and mustard-matched wine tastings.

The small-group trip begins with a welcome at Colman’s Mustard (around since 1814) in Norwich, England, and later involves four nights in Dijon, France. The cost of $4,799 includes all transportation, sightseeing, lodging, meals and “private mustard experiences.” For more: www.outta-heretravel.com, 866-593-1313.

Brenda Fredrick’s Outta Here! Travel specializes in unusual getaways. Consider the Dec. 15-22 Doomsday Tour description: “The Mayans say the world is going to end on Dec. 21 at 11:11 a.m. Why not spend the week in Mexico – among the Mayans partying it up – just in case they are right?”

She also offers excursions much closer to home.

Fun fact: Barry Levenson’s brother, Robert, is a Florida anesthesiologist with a vast Asian art deco collection that is the subject of a new exhibit at the Japan Society of New York. For more: www.japansociety.org, 212-832-1155.