Friday, October 7, 2011

Condimentary, My Dear


I was 27 years old when I learned that ketchup doesn't come with a refrigerator. Every fridge I ever saw had ketchup, mustard and pickles. I never met anyone who bought ketchup.
My formative years were spent living with a series of women, starting with my mother. These women ranged from "caretaker" to "obsessive she-beast." I was encouraged to do "boy things" like mow grass and stick my arm into the toilet up to my shoulder to retrieve a dropped brooch or contact lens. I did not have security clearance to help with refrigerator inventory.
Newly divorced, I was the first tenant in a freshly-renovated apartment, complete with brand new appliances. I opened the refrigerator to a scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey. I blinked as bright light poured out from the gleaming white plastic and chrome, and not a hint of humanity. I pulled out a note pad and wrote across the top: "Grocery List, and underlined it." Beneath that I wrote: "Everything."
At the grocery store I learned that cinnamon, rosemary and cayenne are about the same price as silver. I needed basics: glassware, flour, sugar, measuring cups, a can opener, mixing bowls, and ketchup. I looked around for the financing department.
I learned that "ketchup" is not a brand name. I found a variety of bottle sizes and shapes, but I figured it didn't matter because the contents were the identical tempera-paint red. I chose Heinz because "Heinz ketchup" sounded familiar. I selected a tub of Plochman's mustard because it came in a familiar yellow plastic barrel with a red nipple on top, like that from which I nursed mustard as a kid. I never noticed the barrel of mustard had a name on it. Heinz made mustard too, but "Heinz mustard" didn't sound right.
A new refrigerator with a fresh bottle of mustard and ketchup is a glorious site, clean as an operating room. My apartment was now a home.
Mustard comes in many varieties: spicy, brown, sweet, maybe flecked with brown bits of what I think are seeds but look like flies. There is dijon, which is French for "costs twice as much." These are gourmet foods, not condiments. You can tell the difference because the fancy mustards go on the top shelf of the refrigerator with your olives, feta cheese and capers. The yellow barrel of mustard goes in the door next to the ketchup.
Ketchup takes up a whole section at the grocery store. Family size, picnic-size, upside-down bottle with no-drip spout. But the stuff inside is all just ketchup. Some try labeling it "catsup," which makes my pinky itch to stick out. "Catsup" sounds like dinner's ready at a Vietnamese restaurant. I don't see any hot and spicy ketchup, smoked chunky mango ketchup, or ketchup with black flecks. The Heinz guys are smacking their foreheads for not thinking of it, because while they were making fancy upside-down bottles with clever slogans, the Mexicans invented hot and spicy chunky ketchup. They named it salsa.
So how did ketchup earn a place in every American kitchen? We don't put ketchup on chicken, pizza or tacos. The bottle in my refrigerator today is the same one I bought in 1987, having outlived three refrigerators. Thanks to the magic of the American food industry, it's still edible. I've been through 200 bottles of Ranch dressing, which flavors everything from chips to cheeseburgers — just about everything but salads — but Ranch is still considered a second-tier condiment. I've seen Ranch-flavored Doritos, surely proof of its ubiquity. There are no ketchup-flavored chips. You won't see Hint of Ketchup Triscuits.
Yet ketchup is part of our religious ritual. Your burger arrives. You open it, lift off the bun cap and discard the lettuce like a wet napkin. Shake-shake-shake of salt, shook-shook-shook of pepper. Squeeze a spiral of ketchup followed by a zig-zag of mustard. Any restaurant table is stocked with four items. You know what they are. Since we all agree mustard, ketchup, salt and pepper are supposed to be on the burger, why doesn't the chef apply it for you with his masterful hand, fancy as a $5 cappuccino?
The only other food I know that one is expected to complete at the table is pancakes. And that's only because restaurants give you a dozen different syrups, just to mess with your hung-over head.
I've shopped for refrigerators. When I go to Bulbous Appliance Mart, the dazzling array of crisper trays, door options and water dispensers is overwhelming. You know what I really want? A white refrigerator that comes with a stop-sign red bottle of ketchup and a PlaySkool yellow tub of mustard in the door tray.

1 comment:

  1. Pretty entertaining, I agree there always seems to be a loss when there's no ketchup in the fridge. There is actually such a thing as "ketchup chips" at least where I live. Maybe you should try them, they are surprisingly pretty tasty. Here is a google image search link for you, if it works it should show you several bags of chips.

    http://www.google.com/search?tbm=isch&hl=en&source=hp&biw=1042&bih=565&q=ketchu+chips&gbv=2&oq=ketchu+chips&aq=f&aqi=&aql=1&gs_sm=e&gs_upl=1297l3540l0l3681l12l11l0l5l1l0l144l524l3.3l6l0#hl=en&safe=off&gbv=2&tbm=isch&sa=1&q=ketchup+chips&pbx=1&oq=ketchup+chips&aq=f&aqi=g5g-m3g-ms1g-m1&aql=1&gs_sm=e&gs_upl=2659l2659l0l3299l1l1l0l0l0l0l158l158l0.1l1l0&bav=on.2,or.r_gc.r_pw.,cf.osb&fp=34a8ea33dcc791e7&biw=1042&bih=565

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