Pick a Food: Find a MuseumCorn, spuds, Col. Sanders and of course, SPAM.
By Patty LaNoue Stearns
All over the country, there are fascinating food museums celebrating single-subject edibles—celery, chocolate, corn, Coca-Cola, cranberries–and those are just a few that start with the letter “c.”
Some of these institutions are educational, others are retail-minded, and still others are unapologetic bastions of kitsch, but they’re so much more entertaining than, say, the average Mystery Spot. So here’s a short list of some of the more compelling places dedicated to the things we like to eat. Be sure to call ahead for hours and other visitor information.
Every summer the Corn Palace gets a new facade — made from 600,000 ears of corn and 3,000 bushels of grains and grasses. It’s a magnet for tourists and especially birds, who munch away on it all year long, hence the need for a yearly motif that’s created by local artists. Gift-shop purchases finance the $100,000 redo each year. 601 North Main, Mitchell, SD, 1-866-273-2676, www.cornpalace.org.
IDAHO POTATO EXPOSITION
This spud’s for you! Housed in an old railroad depot, this museum is punctuated by a semitruck-sized Styrofoam potato — the world’s largest — right outside the door. The Expo features dozens of exhibits and lore celebrating Idaho’s pride, and boasts the world’s largest potato chip — a 23- by-14.5-inch cruncher made by Pringle’s that sits behind glass. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the largest potato ever grown was 7 pounds, 1 ounce by J. East (1953) and J. Busby (1982) of Great Britain — just one of the amazing facts you’ll pick up at this tuber temple. There’s also a burlap tuxedo that was worn by the state’s first Potato Commissioner, cheesecake photos of Marilyn Monroe in burlap duds, and a bejeweled potato-sack frock worn by a rodeo queen. About 25,000 people annually visit this spot, which is an easy drive from Yellowstone, Jackson Hole and Sun Valley. 130 NW Main, Blackfoot, ID. Call 208-785-2517 or visit www.ida.net/users/potatoexpo.
COLONEL HARLAND SANDERS MUSEUM & CAFE
Established in 1978 by the Colonel himself, this is the original diner where he served his first finger lickin’ good chicken in the 1940s. Visitors will find a nostalgic collection of old KFC commercials, along with Portrait of a Legend, his biographical film, and can feast on his original secret-recipe chicken with the still-secret blend of 11 herbs and spices. The annual World Chicken Festival is hosted at the museum in the fall with thrill rides, entertainment and the World’s Largest Stainless Steel Skillet. Visit www.chickenfestival.com for festival dates. 689 U.S. Hwy 25 W, Corbin, KY, 606-528-2163 or 800-225-5532. KOOL-AID MUSEUM Here in the birthplace of Kool-Aid, you will learn that this powder-in-a-pack started life as a version of a liquid concentrate called Fruit Smack–they’d never get away with that name today. Hastings inventor Edwin Perkins found a way to turn it into dry powder in 1927, and the smiling pitcher that launched a trillion lemonade stands was born. This museum is celebrating Kool-Aid’s diamond jubilee with the June 20 opening of a permanent interactive exhibit, “Kool-Aid: Discover the Dream.” Visitors will find the original Kool-Aid man costume, rare vintage Kool-Aid packages, video displays, old Perkins home movies and other Kool memorabilia. Hastings Museum of Natural and Cultural History, 1330 N Burlington Ave, Hastings, NE, 402-461-2399, www.hastingsmuseum.org.
THE FIRST PEANUT MUSEUM
A tiny museum devoted to the history of this nutty legume, from the accomplishments of Dr. Matthew Harris, who planted the first commercial crop, to Dr. George Washington Carver’s 300 uses for it. Ask curator Shirley Yancey to show you the figurines that have been carved from raw peanuts into different shapes such as a Santa and reindeer and an owl. She also has an array of peanut wreaths and all kinds of antique peanut-farming tools out back. Don’t miss the peanut-sack curtains. The Miles B. Carpenter Museum and First Peanut Museum, 201 Hunter St., Waverly, VA. off Hwy. 460 near Rt. 40; 804-834-3327 or 804-834-2151, www.virginia.org.
CELERY FLATS INTERPRETIVE CENTER
Watch for Mr. Crispy — a giant stalk of celery with big bulging eyes — who often appears when least expected. Celery Flats pays homage to this crunchy veggie’s reign in Kalamazoo County, once the world’s largest producer, thanks to Dutch immigrants who brought the plants to western Michigan. Take a tour of a 1930’s grain elevator, a turn-of-the-century one-room schoolhouse, the mid-1800s Hayloft Theatre, which still operates, and the 1846 Stuart Manor, the oldest home in the city of Portage. Samples of Golden Yellow celery, which are blanched to white in the fall, can be tasted; they’re nothing like the Pascal celery we’re used to. Large group tours are welcome. 7335 Garden Lane, 1/4 mile east of S. Westnedge Ave., Portage, MI; 616-329-4522. www.portagemi.com.
THE JELL-O MUSEUM
Did you know that a bowl of wiggly Jell-O has brain waves identical to those of adult men and women? That’s one odd tidbit you’ll learn here in LeRoy, birthplace of Jell-O. Get a glimpse of all things gelatin, including baseball cards from the backs of Jell-O boxes of the ’60s to Berry Berry Barbie dolls from 2002. In the Jell-O Gallery, 19 still-life oil paintings from Jell-O ads trace American social history over a century. The gift shop offers large-size Jell-O brain molds and cookbooks with obscure recipes such as Jell-O with lima beans and cabbage. Eat ’em up! LeRoy Historical Society, LeRoy, NY; 716-768-7433; www.jellomuseum.com.
MOUNT HOREB MUSTARD MUSEUM
Barry Levenson, Wisconsin’s former assistant attorney general, clearly knows how to cut the mustard. His museum, founded in 1986, is home to more than 3,825 different mustards from 50 states and around the world–the world’s largest collection. There’s a tasting room, Mustardpiece Theatre with mustard videos, and a higher-learning section called Poupon U, America’s Mustard College. Visitors can pore over vintage advertisements and ogle Levenson’s 1,500 antique mustard pots. 100 West Main St., Mount Horeb, WI, 800-438-6878 or www.mustardmuseum.com.
THE INTERNATIONAL VINEGAR MUSEUM
No sour notes here. Lawrence Diggs, a.k.a. The Vinegar Man, hosts a tasting bar and a vast collection of 330 inspirational vinegars made from grains, grass, fruit, trees, sap and root crops. Diggs, a food scientist, even published a textbook on the stuff (iuniverse.com, 1989). His displays illustrate how vinegar is made, used and enjoyed around the world. There’s a kids’ area with science projects, a vinegar zoo, even paper made from vinegar. 30 Carlton Ave., Rosyln, SD, 877-486-0075; www.vinegarman.com. CRANBERRY EXPO This is home to a collection of machinery designed, built and used by Wisconsin cranberry growers dating from the 1870s. Learn how cranberries are planted, tended, harvested, and marketed at the Potter Family Cranberry Marsh. The gift shop carries cranberry glass, wines, books, candles, potpourri — and of course, cranberry relishes and sauces. The snack shop carries cranberry ice cream and pie. 28388 County EW, Warrens, WI, 608-378-4878, www.cranberryexpo.com.
BIEDENHARN CANDY COMPANY MUSEUM
It’s the real thing. In the restored 19th-century candy store and soda fountain where Joseph Biedenharn first bottled Coca-Cola in 1894, find memorabilia, a cool bottle collection and antique bottling equipment, plus ice cream, Coke Classic and candy to sample as well as Coca-Cola souvenirs. 1107 Washington St., Vicksburg, MS, 601-638-6514, www.biedenharncoca-colamuseum.com.
HERSHEY’S CHOCOLATE WORLD
Sit in a train and learn how cocoa beans are harvested, watch as ingredients are weighed and blended, then see candy bars and Kisses roll down the conveyor belt. There are eight gift shops with all manner of Hershey products in this modern complex. 800 Park Blvd., Hershey, PA, 717-534-4900, www.hersheys.com/chocworld.
WILBUR CHOCOLATE CANDY AMERICANA MUSEUM
Check out antique molds, tins, trays, wooden boxes and hand-painted European and Oriental porcelain chocolate pots. Drool as hand-dipped candies are being made; the candy outlet resembles an old country store. 48 North Broad St., Lititz, PA, 717-626-3249 or 1-888-294-5287, www.wilburbuds.com/wilburbuds/museum
STURGIS PRETZEL HOUSE
In this twisted little bakehouse, Julius Sturgis established the nation’s first commercial pretzel bakery in 1784. His original “soft pretzel” is still hand made and baked in the 200-year old ovens. 219 East Main St., Lititz, PA, 717-626 4354; www.sturgispretzel.com.
Enter the museum lobby and view a towering wall of SPAM, comprised of 3,390 cans. A 400-foot long conveyor belt runs through portions of the museum, carrying more than 800 cans of SPAM. At the exit, a five-foot replica of a SPAMburger is suspended in the corridor, adjacent to a 17-foot burger-flipping spatula. Twenty times larger than the original SPAM historical center, the 16,500-square-foot tribute to Hormel’s 65-year-old icon in a can opened in the fall of 2001. Celebrate the origin, history and popularity of the star of Monty Python’s funniest skit (watch it here), with exhibits, interactive games and video presentations. The museum houses 4,752 cans of SPAM from all over the world and throughout its history. You can even participate in a simulated SPAM production line or visit the gift shop for SPAM merchandise, including pens, T-shirts, notepads, boxers, jackets, hats and much more. 1101 N. Main St., Austin, MN 800-588-7726; www.spam.com.
(This story originally appeared in the IDetroit Free Press.)