On the sad state of America's favorite condiment.
By Meg Favreau
It's like a movie: One day you wake up and discover that ketchup — the condiment you've loved for as long as you can remember, with whom you've shared countless juicy burgers and hot french fries with — has a past it never shared. You thought ketchup always came in a familiar bottle or, at its wildest, those little single-serving pouches. You thought that ketchup's parents were Heinz, who doted on the condiment and even spoiled it by moving it from that clunky glass bottle to an easy-to-use plastic squeezer. You thought that ketchup was your rock — even if you hopped from brand to brand, you thought ketchup wouldn't change much. It would never do that to you.
You were wrong. For goodness sake, when ketchup was born, it wasn't even made of tomatoes.
Yeah, that's right. In his book Pure Ketchup: A History of America's National Condiment, culinary historian and tomato enthusiast Andrew F. Smith notes, “Early [ketchup] recipes published in Great Britain in the eighteenth century fashioned ketchup from kidney beans, mushrooms, anchovies, and walnuts.” But where most foods evolve as time goes on, branching out into greater varieties, ketchup has devolved. Sure, you can still find recipes for some alternative ketchups (Food + Wine has a Grant Achatz recipe for a prune version), but on the whole, the word that was once a synonym for a plethora of homemade sauces now just means one thing: bottled, processed, tomatoey goop.
In a 2004 New Yorker article, Malcom Gladwell lamented the sorry state of modern ketchup, although his piece was much less about the condiment's fall and more about its potential rise. Gladwell argued that ketchup was then where mustard had been in the early ’70s, when the grocery store mustard section consisted of just a few brands of the yellow stuff. But when Grey Poupon stepped up their advertising efforts, sales of the mustard jumped by 40 percent to 50 percent, depending on the city. Grey Poupon went almost instantly from a specialty-aisle item to a mustard-shelf staple, and the supermarket mustard section blossomed into a brown-and-yellow festival of options. Ketchup, Gladwell pointed out, had the potential to explode in a similar fashion.
But five years later, ketchup is in the same place: Supermarkets still feature the same tiny selection, a handful of restaurants make their own, and tiny gourmet producers barely make a nick in the ketchup market. In fact, it would appear that the fledgling company Gladwell wrote about in his article, World's Best Ketchup, has gone out of business — a Google search for the company primarily brings up links to Gladwell's 2004 article, and a phone number for the business has been disconnected.
Remember, though: We're using a movie plot metaphor here, and at the point of despair, a good film hero always finds a way out. Sure, you can see the solution coming — a piece about ketchup in the DIY section is going to tell you to make the damn stuff yourself. But just because the plot is formulaic doesn't mean it's any less entertaining. Homemade ketchup has a brighter sweetness and stronger vinegar bite than store-bought stuff. Whereas conventional ketchup serves primarily as an inoffensive foil to the saltiness of home fries or a crisp, just-off-the-grill hot dog, homemade ketchup brings a whole new shine to the foods it's paired with. In the end, you'll discover that even though ketchup isn't what you always thought it was, you'll love it even more than you ever thought you could.
Roll the credits. • 29 July 2009
| Tomato Ketchup, adapted from Gourmet
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
Meg Favreau is a writer and comedian living in Philadelphia. She blogs at ihearyoulikestories.com.
Article photo by Leonid Mamchenkov via Flickr (Creative Commons); ecipe photo by Meg Favreau.