Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Catching Up on Ketchup

Ketchup is everywhere. That red, tangy sauce is practically the quintessential American food, squeezing out pizza.

One fact-finder with too much time on his hands says ketchup can be found in 97 percent of American homes. He probably wasn’t able to break into the other 3 percent of homes.

1280-2-liquiglide-ketchup-bottleFor many people, ketchup is a staple. For others, it is a necessary accouterment to choke down their meal.

But sadly ketchup is neither American nor has it always centered on tomatoes.

Ethnographers have found evidence of ketchup forbearers as far back as 300 B.C. Recipes to make it called variously for mushroom, oysters, mushrooms and walnuts, but not tomatoes.

I have a long-time friend who is unable to eat anything – from eggs to steak to breakfast food – without ketchup. I once even saw him put ketchup on his dessert. It would be funny, but his sons and wife are just as addicted.

Our youngest daughter apparently finds the taste of ketchup more appealing than almost any preparation her mother can concoct – from chicken marsala to beef teriyaki. It can’t be the tomatoes because she disdains red sauce on pasta.

I understand why people like to dip their french fries in mounds of ketchup – to balance the salty flavors of both. I even understand why people apply layers of ketchup on hamburgers and hotdogs. For some reason, ketchup is easier to wipe off your shirt and pants than mustard.

Maybe ketchup makes you lucky. A man wandered into a New York grocery store last month to buy a bottle of ketchup and walked out with a lottery ticket worth $1 million.

07071301.interactive.aIf asked on Jeopardy! I would say ketchup was created by the Heinz family sometime in the late 1800s. Evidently, the Chinese thought of it first, perhaps serving as the inspiration for the later invention of gunpowder.

Use of the condiment gradually spread in Asia to Singapore, Malaysians gave it a name – kecap, pronounced kay-chap. English travelers discovered and before long ketchup showed up in Western cookbooks.

Tomatoes entered the picture in the early 1800s. In fact, its addition as the central ingredient was such a revolution that it was called Tomato Ketchup.

Ketchup was sweetened to suit American tastes and the love affair went viral.

Before Heinz, housewives made their own ketchup or, if they were lucky, bought a batch from a local farmer who had a surplus of tomatoes.

Now you can find ketchup on all kinds of containers, from small packages to squirt on your dog at the ballpark to industrial size packaging found in fast food restaurants.

Regardless of the form, I’m not a ketchup fan. I’m a mustard man. Mustard, even the low-price brands, have a distinct flavor. There is now a craft mustard movement that emphasizes distinct, unusual tastes. Most of the ketchup you buy these days tastes like liquid salt, not tomatoes.

Despite its ubiquity and popularity, ketchup-makers are trying to put the pizzaz back in ketchup. Heinz has a version souped up with balsamic vinegar.  The problem is that when you mix balsamic vinegar with something bland, it tastes like balsamic vinegar.

Purists are returning to homemade ketchup. You can tamp down the salt and the sugar and concentrate on bringing forward the rich flavor of ripe tomatoes. That would be something worth slathering on a thick, juicy charcoal-cooked burger. Or you could save time and trouble by just cutting up a plump red tomato and piling on the slices.

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