Ketchup has taken a lot of grief lately.
Often it's from nutritionists shrilling that we need to lock it up and throw away the key, lest our children drown in all that corn syrup.
Certainly, the health concerns are legitimate. And there’s no getting around the fact that sugar-addled ketchup — a tablespoon of it packs more sugar than a chocolate chip cookie.
But this isn’t dinner. Or, at least, it shouldn’t be.
Ketchup is a condiment. A companion, even a confidante, if you will. It’s the friend who stands beside even the limpest of meals — always ready to lend a hand.
And its reward? The distinction of being dubbed “easily the worst condiment,” according to Vice.
Ketchup to the rescue
It’s hard to imagine a condiment that has literally brought food back from the dead — and likely even kept marriages together — could have fallen so far. Indeed, in the U.S., it’s being outsold by mayonnaise — with soy sauce, yes soy sauce nipping at its heels.
America, give your head a shake. Or better yet, give your bottle of ketchup the shake you both deserve. Just consider all the times it’s been there for you.
You’re out of plum sauce? There’s ketchup.
No spaghetti sauce? Ketchup.
Tapped out of salsa? Well, Canadians invented the patriotic ketchup chip.
Now, try this exercise again — only instead of ketchup, insert mustard. Or — heaven save us all — mayonnaise. That little kick you’re feeling in your throat? It’s called gag reflex.
A world without ketchup is a dry, colorless world. It’s a nothing-and-soda. It’s a hash brown without a splash of red. Is that really a world you want to live in?
How about one where ketchup brightens every burger? And there’s always a stray packet kicking around the bowels of your fridge, still as perfectly fresh as the day you dug it out from the bottom of your take-out bag.
Maybe ketchup just isn’t dramatic enough for modern sensibilities. To be sure, ketchup’s past is decidedly plaid.
In fact, the only real color in this condiment’s history came back in the early part of the 20th century. Call it the Great Benzoate Schism. Essentially, benzoate — a common preservative in ketchup — came to be deemed unhealthy. The academic debate that raged over benzoate nearly tore the ketchup world in half.
Here’s how Malcolm Gladwell described the split in the New Yorker: “On one side was the ketchup establishment, which believed that it was impossible to make ketchup without benzoate and that benzoate was not harmful in the amounts used. On the other side was a renegade band of ketchup manufacturers, who believed that the preservative puzzle could be solved with the application of culinary science.”
The solution proved tidy enough: Just pickle those tomatoes and the ketchup will stay fresh without any help from benzoate.
Any more drama?
Well, ketchup does have some kookiness in its family tree — including a strange uncle called mushroom ketchup, which was supposedly a favorite in Jane Austen’s household. Other ketchups recruited walnuts and even oysters.
The tomato didn’t roll onto the scene until the early 19th century when a horticulturist named James Mease introduced his so-called "love apples" into the mix.
His ketchup was a new and savory mashup of tomato pulp, spices and brandy. No sugar. But we can imagine his concoction packed a wallop.
Since crossing the Atlantic to make a life in the New World, ketchup has prospered — indeed, becoming even more American than apple pie.
Indeed, if American kitchens had a patron condiment, it would be ketchup. Maybe we might someday appreciate its myriad blessings — and build a monument to rival even the Statue of Liberty. And at the foot of that towering bottle of iron copper and steel, a plaque:
"Bring us your faded fries. Your meek mac and cheese — and all the wretched refuse of your teeming fridge."
And ketchup will make it shine anew.