Earlier this month, Diane and I dropped in on the Dane County farmers market in Madison, Wis., shopping for both vegetables and trout. It was our night to cook for the relatives, and of course I wondered how their farmers market stacked up.
Well, it’s bigger. Much, much bigger, filling four long blocks that form a square around the state Capitol. I calculated nearly 100 vendors, with thousands of people trekking counterclockwise like a school of fish. See something you want? You excuse, excuse, excuse please, and dash out to shop.
“It’s a very famous market,” says Randii MacNear, the veteran manager of the Davis market. “Its fans adore it.”
The produce displays were pristine, every onion aglisten. Regional specialties, such as cheese curd, brats (bratwurst, which is cooked in beer before grilling) and fried cheese (yum!) were at hand. Meat lovers had lots of choices, compared to the two at the Davis Farmers Market. But our market has one vendor with a good variety of seafood, while in Madison, let’s hope you’re looking for trout.
I remarked to Diane that there are those with the gall to complain about parking at the Davis market. What’s the frame of reference? In Madison we had to park several long blocks away in a parking structure, and it was quite a hike to the market. And most shoppers had a considerable drive to get there, versus the five-minute run the majority of us have in our fair city.
I was struck anew by the cornucopia here, which we take for granted. Kiwis, wine, high-quality olive oil, avocados, a vast array of fresh stone fruit — these weren’t to be found in Madison. The credit goes to the climate and geography all around us; Madison’s market does a sterling job with what their climate allows, before retreating indoors for the cold months, when the crowds disappear.
I came away from the experience with a renewed appreciation for the local food selection we have in our corner of northern California.
The next afternoon brought us to the National Mustard Museum, in nearby Middleton.
As one is about to enter, you do wonder how you became a person going into a mustard museum. Why am I not, instead, the Most Interesting Man in the World, with that great facial hair and women standing by in adoration? Why haven’t I done something to earn a MacArthur Foundation grant?
But no, you’re about to enter the so-called National Mustard Museum on a slow, very slow, Mid-western afternoon. It rained earlier. The relatives and I had visited two commendable art museums in Madison earlier, so this would complete a museum trifecta (sort of) for the day.
There are 5,500 different mustards from around the world either for sale upstairs or displayed in the non-profit museum downstairs. Hokey predominates — a blend of state fair, big-top circus, and a clever retailing layout executed in mustard yellow. The museum aspect, under our tax laws, can and does cleverly seek contributions as a non-profit; the for-profit mustard store does a grand business because of it.
The place is the brainchild of impresario Barry Levenson, who’s got a pun, quip or fairytale for everything mustard.
Levenson launched the museum about 20 years ago. He’d been an assistant attorney general for the state of Wisconsin, so I imagine anything — opening a mustard store, for example — would have seemed like a step up. The interesting attorney general stuff back then was in New York, California, Texas — not Wisconsin. True, Wisconsin has been in a long-running bragging war with California about the most cheese, the most dairy; but I don’t recall any suits of great import filed in the dispute.
I asked Levenson, who was working the cash register, what pushed his entrepreneurial button. Straight-faced, he said that after the Boston Red Sox lost the World Series in 1986, he was very, very upset and went walking to dispel his dismay. Let me now quote from the NMM website for a description of what allegedly happened next, which speaks of Barry in the third person, as if he didn’t write or approve it. He told me a more sane version.
“Barry was wandering an all-night supermarket looking for the meaning of life.”
Really. That’s where you go for the meaning of life?
“As he passed the mustards, he heard a voice:”
From Colonel Mustard, I presume.
“If you collect us, they will come.”
Whereupon Barry went home and began to amass a mustard collection the way some collect Elvis figurines. Five years later, with critical mass, he opened the museum.
Last Christmas our Madison relatives sent Diane and me a six-pack of mustard from the National Mustard Museum. Mustard with dill, cranberry mustard, sweet-hot mustard, and so on. Delicious, all! (Use exclamation points liberally with anything associated with Levenson and the mustard museum!)
Two women staffed the tasting tables, where you could sample any of the hundreds of opened mustards in the cooler case. We tasted eclectically. Then we had $1 mini-brats (brats are everywhere in Madison, the way frozen yogurt is inescapable here) on a mini-bun, slathered with the mustard of our choice.
Diane and I left with two jars of black truffle mustard, some sweet-hots, and a Grey Poupon style! Wisconsin and thereabouts may not have a wine industry, but mustard-loving teetotalers from California would find themselves smiling ear-to-ear in Wisconsin.
Ok, I’ve needled Madison a bit. Let me in fairness needle our fair university, whose reigning officials should visit the University of Wisconsin terrace on Lake Mendota, just outside the student union. Every day this time of year a band plays and upwards of 1,000 people — townies, profs, grannies, some students — sit at café tables and drink beer and laugh long into the night. Bring it here!
— Dan Kennedy, a Davis resident, has a long history with the bounty of gardens and small farms. Reach him at [email protected]