America is scattered with niche museums for everything from buttons to toilet seats, but perhaps the greatest source of potential museum inspiration comes from food. America is home to museums paying homage to popcorn, vinegar, and more. We spoke with the founder and curator of the National Mustard Museum to discover what inspired him to open his museum and why mustard is his condiment of choice.
National Mustard Museum
Barry Levenson was an assistant attorney general for the State of Wisconsin in 1986 when he decided to begin collecting mustard. As Levenson tells it, inspiration struck when he was in a grocery store after his favorite team, the Red Sox, lost the World Series.
“I just happened to turn down the condiment aisle and decided I needed to collect something,” explains Levenson, “and I was in front of the mustards. I had always liked it, and I had already started doing a little experimenting with it. I said, ‘I wonder how many there are?’ I bought a dozen that night, and said I’m going to start collecting mustards. There was something about mustard that resonated with me. I had no idea where that would lead me.”
From those first 12 mustards, an empire quickly grew. Levenson was promoted to head of the criminal appeals division, but that didn’t slow his mustard collection in the slightest.
“It was supposed to be just a little hobby, but I guess it got out of control,” explains Levenson. “I would tell friends about it and word spread, and people were showing up at my doorstep on weekends asking to see the collection. As that 10 or 12 grew to a couple hundred, I became more and more fascinated by mustard. I always wondered what would happen if I opened this as a museum open to the public.”
As a successful lawyer, the career change would be drastic, but Levenson was dedicated to the idea and it didn’t take long for him to make the jump.
“So I just did it,” Levenson says. “I left my job. Crazy, but I did. It was scary. That really is jumping out of a plane without a parachute. But I guess, see if you bounce, right?”
Judging by the success of the National Mustard Museum since then, it’s safe to say Levenson bounced pretty well.
“I opened it here in Wisconsin in 1992. Originally we may have had 1,000 [varieties of mustard]. We have just surpassed the 6,000-mustard mark here at the museum, and we have mustards from 87 different countries.”
The museum also sponsors several events that help attract tourism and draw excitement about mustard.
“The museum runs the international mustard competition every year,” Levenson says. “We’ve been doing that since about 1995. We get mustards from all over the world that are sent here to be judged in different flavor categories.”
Another event sponsored by the museum is National Mustard Day.
“It got started before I opened the museum. We took over stewardship of it at the suggestion of a mustard company. It is celebrated annually [on] the first Saturday in August. We have a giant street festival with mustard games for kids, and, obviously, hot dogs and mustard tasting. It’s just a fun day to celebrate mustard.”
The National Mustard Museum offers a tasting bar, a gift shop, and a founder who is passionate about every variation of mustard available.
“We know that people are often stressed in their daily life, and we want this to be a refuge from that,” says Levenson. “This is a place where people are going to learn about mustard, but they’re going to have a lot of fun doing it. It’s all about the fun and part of the fun is tasting because you can taste hundreds of mustards when you come here.”
American Food Museums
If niche food museums interest you, you’re in luck – there are quite a few to choose from around the country. Below are some of the most interesting food museums we found.
- •Wyandot Popcorn Museum: This museum holds a wide variety of antique popcorn poppers, some of which date back to the late 19th century. The machines are displayed under a circus tent that has been erected inside the building. Steam-powered popcorn machines, horse-drawn carriages, and popcorn trucks are just some of the displays that can be found here. The museum is in Marion, Ohio, where there is also an annual popcorn festival.
- •International Vinegar Museum: This museum, located in Roslyn, S.D., originated when a local non-profit was looking for a way to promote tourism to the town. Lawrence Diggs, also known as The Vinegar Man, had the idea for a vinegar museum, and it was formed in 1999 in the historic Roslyn Auditorium. The museum allows visitors to taste a wide variety of vinegars and the opportunity to take some of their favorites home. Roslyn is also home to an annual vinegar festival, where the community crowns a Vinegar Queen.
- •Burnt Food Museum: Located in Arlington, Mass., this museum spotlights the charred, blackened accidents almost every cook has experienced. The museum was founded by recording artist Deborah Henson-Conant, who was inspired when she left apple cider on the stove for far too long, resulting in a freestanding, blackened brick of cider remnant she named “Hot Apple Cinder.” Other exhibits include macaroni noodles, waffles, toast, and hot dogs cooked well past their prime. However, seeing these exhibits in person doesn’t come cheap: The museum is only open for private tours, which cost $3,500 for a maximum of nine guests.
- •SPAM Museum: Originally opened as the Hormel Foods First Century Museum in 1991, this museum has undergone a name change and a move to a larger location in recent years. The new space includes family-friendly activities, games, and displays, as well as a theater and gift shop. If you want to pay homage to pre-cooked canned meats, you’re in luck – The Spam Museum is admission-free.
- •Idaho Potato Museum: Potatoes are grown in all 50 states (and was the first vegetable to be grown in space), but they are almost synonymous with Idaho, so it’s no surprise the state would have a museum dedicated to spuds. Located in Blackfoot, Idaho, the museum’s exhibits include the world’s largest potato chip, a history of potato consumption, and a hall of fame for impressive contributions to the potato industry.
- •International Banana Museum: Mecca, Calif., is home to the International Banana Museum, where visitors can try a number of banana edibles such as banana soda pop and banana splits. The museum displays over 20,000 banana-related items, ranging from buttons to body cream. The museum’s hours vary seasonally, so call ahead if you want to stop by to enjoy this tropical fruit.
- •Dr. Pepper Museum: This museum opened in 1989 in the former Artesian Manufacturing and Bottling Company building in Waco, Texas, where Dr. Pepper was first bottled. The facility includes a recreation of Waco’s Old Corner Drugstore, which was operated by Dr. Wade Morrison, who lent his honorific to the drink he created. The building also houses Frosty’s Soda Shop, where visitors can enjoy Dr. Pepper as well as ice cream and other food options in a 1950s-themed soda shop.
- •The Hershey Museum: Located in Hershey, Penn., the Hershey Museum educates visitors about the history of the company and its founder, Milton Hershey. Many of the exhibits are hands-on, giving visitors the opportunity to taste and make different varieties of chocolate.