Samples of mustard being judged at the National Mustard Museum in Middleton. Judges must bring their own tiny spoons or pretzel sticks to dip into the samples as one precaution against spreading coronavirus. (Photo submitted by Mary Bergin)
Samples of mustard being judged at the National Mustard Museum in Middleton. Judges must bring their own tiny spoons or pretzel sticks to dip into the samples as one precaution against spreading coronavirus. (Photo submitted by Mary Bergin)

Middleton museum’s annual event takes precautions

March Madness ended before it began and Broadway has gone dark indefinitely – but the show quietly goes on for Barry and Patti Levenson.

The Madison couple, aka Mr. and Mrs. Mustard of the National Mustard Museum in Middleton, were resolved to bring the 27th World-Wide Mustard Competition to a logical, ethical conclusion. As usual, entries for the annual taste-off arrived from as far away as Japan and several European countries.

The deadline to compete was Feb. 28, one day before COVID-19 caused its first death on American soil. Preliminary mustard judging – blind tastings by a mix of average consumers and pros with trained palettes – happened about one week later.

Then it became harder to move quickly. The average entry was judged by 10 to 12 judges, who each assigned a score of one to five. That’s a lot of data to enter and calculate for an estimated 250 entries, covering 17 categories.

By the time finalists – eight to 12 per category – were determined for the March 22 medal round, the world and the conditions for such events had changed tremendously. 

With an emergency order that no more than 10 people can gather at one time, the usual six to eight judges at a six-foot-long table was no longer an option. There would be fewer judges per table, fewer tables, and more space between them. Judging was split into three sessions instead of one.

“It’s called mustard distancing,” quipped Barry Levenson.

That is how Kathleen Tissot of Madison and I ended up at opposite ends of a table on March 22, tasting 77 kinds of commercially produced mustard within three hours.

That’s twice as much as what I sampled eight years ago, when my palate was first immersed into the wide and wacky world of mustard.

Two friends from Fond du Lac, Tyler Copeland and Dustin Delzer, sat a few feet away at a second table. In another room was a threesome of judges: Barry Davis, daughter Nicki and her fiancée, Chris Young.

That’s it. By the time my gut had enough mustard, only two categories were left to judge.

Eight years ago, about 30 of us dabbed mustards onto bits of corned beef, swiped pretzel sticks with mustard or simply tasted it with tiny plastic spoons. 

This time? “You each have your own set of stuff – and it’s only been touched by gloved hands,” Patti Levenson emphasized. We each had our own stash of pretzels, spoons, scoresheets.

Why bother when it would be easier to forego the contest?

“The industry relies on it,” Barry Levenson said, “and for our own credibility, it’s important.”

“It’s a big point of pride for those who enter and win,” his wife adds.

Tissot said she didn’t consider canceling. “I knew Barry and Patti would be very careful,” said the three-time judge. The instructional specialist at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health credits relatives in Germany for long ago teaching her the nuances of mustard taste and usage. 

What began as a relatively straightforward mustard contest – 85 entries in eight categories – has snowballed in complexity and participation.

Garlic mustards stand alone, having overwhelmed the aroma and taste of the herb/veggie mustard category. Spirit mustards are spiked with a fermented or distilled beverage. 

Mustards with a kick of heat no longer are a single category. They are divided into sweet hot, classic hot, pepper hot (mild/medium), pepper hot (scorchers) or horseradish/wasabi mustards.

And the exotic category? Entries introduce unlikely ingredients, such as bacon, ginger, curry, hickory smoke, saffron-cardamon or … wait for it … root beer.

It’s a long way from the mustard and bread sandwiches that Delzer ate as a kid. 

Mustard retail shop employees will likely judge the contest’s final two categories before the scores are crunched to determine the 17 category winners.

One becomes the overall champ, a process that 15 judges usually would decide in one swoop, through blind tastings.

“We’ll look at it sort of like carryout – each judge can make a private appointment, if necessary, to spend 30 minutes on this championship round,” Barry said. Contact him to be considered for the job.

And if we’re sheltering in place by then? “We have all those scores to fall back on – we would find the star.”