Despite having minimal previous experiences in food (outside of eating it), Barry Levenson, former Attorney General of Wisconsin, left his comfortable law career to take a leap of faith and open the National Mustard Museum in 1995. In the twenty years since the original museum opened in Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin, Levenson has taken the museum further than he ever dreamed he could.
2:30am on October 28th, 1986. I’m wandering aimlessly though the grocery store, devastated by the heartbreaking loss my Red Socks have just suffered. Suddenly, I hear a voice, seeming from on high: “If you collect us, they will come.” I look up, astonished. I’m standing alone in the condiments aisle, looking up at row upon row of mustards. I grab 12 or 15 jars and head to the cashier. Little did I know where those 12 jars would take me.
So let’s back up: How does an assistant attorney general for the state of Wisconsin end up a mustard enthusiast, to put it lightly? Sometimes, I wonder myself. I loved my job and never thought I would leave it as it was the ultimate law job for my interests. It was great: I was arguing cases for the state supreme court, writing briefs, and writing is what I love. It was engaging—it was fascinating, intellectually stimulating work. But for all that, I had no idea what the future had in store for me that night.
I joke about it, but that’s really how it all started. Mourning my Red Socks, I found myself in an all-night grocery in Madison, Wisconsin, at 2:30am on that fateful night. Whether I literally heard that voice or not, I’m not sure, but I do know that was the moment I decided I should start collecting things. Maybe it was just fate that I ended up in front of the mustards. I mean, imagine if I had ended up in front of the feminine hygiene products.
It’s not as though I had any outstanding experiences with mustard or with food in general that may have influenced this particular path. Growing up, food was something we ate, of course, but beyond that it really wasn’t anything special until my senior year of college. I was interning at the Council of Economic Advisers at the White House at the time. One of the economists invited me to dinner one night and totally blew me away with this chicken bordeux dish. I was just amazed, shocked that she had made this fantastic dish. In response, she pulled out the original New York Times Cookbook and showed it to me. I was just so thrilled with it. The next day, a copy of that ended up on my desk, a gift from Irene Laurie, who really, you could say, turned me on to cooking. I had never done any cooking before, and that’s when I started to experiment.
This experimentation of foods wasn’t enough to make me quit my comfortable job at the Department of Justice of course. About six months after I started collecting mustards, I got my second sign though. I was arguing a case at the US Supreme Court and as I was leaving the hotel, I saw a small, unopened jar of mustard on a room service cart that I didn’t recognize. Thinking maybe it would be good luck, I put it in my pocket and brought it with me to the Supreme Court. Security of course asked why I was bringing mustard. “Oh, I just am.” I did, in fact, win that case 5-4 with the mustard in my pocket and I still have that jar. It’s probably my favorite and most memorable jar in the collection because it has a real story behind it. That was when I started thinking, “What would life be like if I were to open a museum?” It started to morph into a fantasy, and as the years wore on, I finally decided that I could wonder and fantasize about it all I want, but I’ll never know until I do it. So, I just did it. It was probably the craziest thing I ever did, quitting a very secure, well-paying job (with benefits!) to essentially jump off a cliff. But I did it.
I was a frequent guest on a Chicago radio station and one day, I asked if I could taste mustards with Spike O’Dell on WGN Radio. We did it, and during a break, I had an idea. “Spike,” I said, “I know what kind of mustards you like, since we just got finished tasting them. Let me come up with a mustard that’ll have your name and the station’s name on it.” “No,” he said, “I don’t think the station will go for that.” I had other plans. “Oh they’ll go for it, because tell them that for every jar that we sell, the company and I will donate $1 to the WGN Neediest Kids Fund.” I thought we would sell maybe a couple hundred jars, but boy was I wrong. We sold thousands, and ended up donating almost half a million dollars to the Neediest Kids Fund.
Here in Madison, we’ve raised money for a lot of organizations that I think have been very happy to be a part of it. I’m thrilled that we’ve been able to be part of the community, especially during Mustard Day. It’s a great, old-fashioned street fair: Carnival, games, free hotdogs, the Weiner Mobile is here every year. Really, when you bring 7000 people here, it has a huge impact on the community, and we just put on a party for the city of Middleton. It’s an opportunity to give back.
There have been so many rewarding experiences over the years. I’ve written a children’s book called “Mustard on a Pickle,” and I’ve probably given away as many as we’ve sold, but there have just been times when a little kid comes in and I just can’t resist. There have been so many experiences of just seeing a little boy or a little girl’s eyes just sparkle when they’ve got this book. There was one, just a cute little guy, maybe four or five years old, and his eyes just lit up. He was out the door two minutes later, but then, all of the sudden, he came back in and gave me a big hug. I’ve heard from his mother about how that really affected him and how it’s his favorite book. I’ve heard from a lot of parents about how “Oh we have your Mustard on a Pickle book and it’s his favorite book. We have to read it to him all the time.” So that’s something that makes me feel really good.
I also remember a woman calling me to order some mustards for her nephew and she was telling me how much she loved the catalog, and she mentioned that her husband had just passed away the week before. She was talking about our catalog, which we try to make as funny as possible. She said that she had brought the catalog into his hospital room and he laughed out loud. That was the last time he had laughed.
Moments like that make everything worth it. To me that’s biggest joy of all, that people have come here and just had a good time. I can’t say that people came into contact with me as a lawyer and said, “Boy I really had a good time dealing with that lawyer.” I may have been a nice guy—these memorable experiences just didn’t happen lawyering.
So that’s the story of the National Mustard Museum. Would I do it all again if I could? I think I would. I advise people, “Keep your day job, but don’t lose your daydream.” This collection, which has grown to more than 5,800 mustards, has allowed me to reach more people than I ever could have as a lawyer. This job has not made me rich, in money terms, but I think it has made me rich in emotional terms and in ways that nothing else can match. It has brought me in touch with people I would never have met and that’s something that I would gladly do again.
— Nicki Davis