Saturday, April 30, 2011

Meeting Mustard Royalty

Eric Rygg (left) wears his three medals after the presentation
by Barry Levenson, founder of the National Mustard Museum

Eric Rygg of Kelchner's Horseradish Products,  based in the Philly suburb of Dublin, is mustard royalty.

That honor was certified Friday night by none other than the Clown Prince of Mustard-dom, Barry Levenson, founder and Grand Poobah of the National Mustard Museum in Middleton, Wisconsin, just outside Madison.

The event celebrated the winners of the 2011 World Wide Mustard Competition and also featured the First Annual Iron Mustard Chefs Challenge. And no, I'm not kidding, though Levenson frequently does.

At the event Rygg accepted medals for three mustards produced by his family-owned business, which includes Kelchner's and Silver Spring Farms of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Within the Horseradish/Wasabi Mustard competition Kelchener's Hot Mustard with Horseradish took the bronze medal, while gold went to Silver Spring's Beer 'n Brat Horseradish Mustard. (Brats, keep in mind, are almost as identified with Wisconsin as cheese curds and the Green Bay Packers.) Silver Spring's Organic Deli Mustard took the silver medal in the Organic Mustards category.

Rygg is president of Kelchner's, a firm which has another Philadelphia area connection since it markets condiments under the Bookbinder's brand, which it acquired a few years back. Kelchner's also has a substantial distribution business of products from other manufacturers, so they handle the oyster crackers you find filling the bowls at the Oyster House on Sansom Street, as well as providing the horseradish. (Rygg is trying to convince Sam Mink, owner of the Oyster House, to ice the tableside horseradish because the product rapidly loses pungency once opened and allowed to reach room temperature.)

It's horseradish, rather than mustard, however, that flows through Rygg's veins. In 1929 his great grand-father Ellis Huntsinger started Huntsinger Farms in Eau Claire. Today Huntsinger is the world's largest grower and processor of horseradish, so it was no accident that when Kelchner's was put up for sale a year or so ago the Wisconsin family firm acquired it.

Iron Mustard Chefs Challenge

As a string quartet serenaded visitors to the two-floor museum in beautiful downtown Middleton, attendees at the Evening of Mustard Royalty could sample the dishes cooked up by the chefs using some of the award-winnng condiments (ketchup was verbotten).

Culver's Pretzel Lobster with sweet potato
fries; Deviled Egg from The Cooper's
Tavern graces table also
My favorite entry, and the winner, was created by the Corporate Chef for Culver's, a Wisconsin-based hamburg and custard chain (and very good fast-food type burgers they are, with good custard, too). Jim Doak wowed the crowd and the judges with his Pretzel Lobsters. Even if he used slippery lobsters, a South Seas crustacean which is not a true lobster, it was nonetheless extremely delicious. Doak took the tail meat and dipped it into a batter with Aldrich Farms Sweet & Hot Mustard (the gold medal winner in the Pepper Hot Mustards division) which included finely ground pretzel, with crunchier pretzel pieces added. It was then deep fried and served with sweet potato fries and accompanying mustard-enhanced sauce. For a second dish, and a glorious dessert, Doak served Culver's custard spiked with more mustard (just enough for a back bite after a few spoonfulls) and crushed pretzels. Neither dish, he admits, will appear on the chain's menu anytime soon, but he had great fun putting it together.

Another standout from the chefs was a pulled pork dish created by David Heide of Liliana's Restaurant in the Madison suburb of Fitchburg. The meat filled a crepe topped with sour cream and Terrapin Ridge's Blueberry Honey Mustard, the gold medalist among the Fruit Mustards.

Rod Ladson of Johnny's Italian Steakhouse in Middleton forwent red meat in favor of chicken. He prepared parts bathed in a combination of mustard-infused black beans served with orzo (sorry, I didn't note the mustard used).

Two restaurants whipped up deviled egg dishes. Alas, I'm not an egg eater, so I can't comment on anything other than the artistic, colorful beauty of the finger food, especially the pastel-hued eggs created by Tim Larsen, executive chef at one of my favorite Madison restaurants, The Cooper's Tavern, where there's a dish of of pork belly and mac 'n cheese with my name on it for dinner tonight. (Tim also does an out of sight marrow bone dish at this detour-worthy gastro pub on Capitol Square.)

About the Museum

I first visited the museum with SWMBO, a Wisconsin native, about 10 years ago when it was located in Mount Horeb, some 20 miles outside Madison. Two years ago Barry Levenson moved the mustard mecca to Middleton. Levenson founded the museum while serving as an assistant attorney general for the state; he now devotes his full-time energies to this one-of-a-kind shrine to the seed and its offspring.

Friday night's event was a kick-off fund-raiser to convert the museum into a registered non-profit, since Levenson will quickly note that it's a passion from which you cannot make money. Going non-profit will allow Levenson, a native of Worcester, Massachusetts, who retains his New England accent in the face of all the Wisconsin-ese talkers surrounding him, to go after grant money as well as public donations.

Crack commemorating 1939 visit
by King George VI to Canada
While the main floor of the museum offers plenty of mustard and mustard-related tschochkas for sale as well as exhibits, the lower floor is crammed with thousands of mustard jars and paraphernalia Levenson has collected in his life-long obsession. One wall is covered with glass cases filled with mustards arranged by state and nation of origin. He's also got a collection of ceramic mustard pots, and during the ceremony made special note, given the morning's royal wedding, of a crock commemorating King George VI's 1939 visit to Canada.

More than 5,600 jars of mustard fill the museum, and I have no doubt Levenson has tasted them all. About 500 mustards can be purchased at the museum. Since the Madison area is dominated by the University of Wisconsin, you can also purchase a "Poupon U" t-shirt, which gives some indication of Levenson's standard of humor.

During his legal tenure Levenson had the occasion to argue before the nation's highest court on behalf of the state. “I argued a case before the Supreme Court with a mustard jar in my left pocket,” he says. “We won.”

There's no lack of levity in Levenson's approach to mustard. If you like low humor, by all means subscribe to The Proper Mustard Newsletter, where sharp wit and bad puns spice up mustard lore.

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