In Praise of Ketchup

Chutney is exotic. Salsa is sexy. (Have you ever gone “ketchup dancing”?) Ketchup is probably little more than the stuff you unthinkingly glob onto your fries at the local burger emporium. Shame on you!

Making an egg sandwich with cheese and ketchup the other morning, I wondered how it had happened that ketchup had been reduced to such ignominy.

Set aside, for a moment, your belief that ketchup is the most pedestrian and a mostly invisible condiment in the refrigerator. Take it out and taste it again for the first time. Of course there’s tomato, but tomato is also the beginning of salsa, some chutneys and even the occasional odd jam. There’s far more to ketchup than just tomato-y goodness.

Infused into that tomato-y goodness is a complex group of subtle flavors that have become so commonplace we fail to appreciate its complexity. It begins with sweet and sour: brown sugar and vinegar. Americans love things slightly sweet. The condiments of many other cultures focus on sour or piquant. Ketchup Americanizes the condiment by adding sweet to the sour.

And what else is there beyond the tomato, the sweet, and the sour? At this point, ketchup becomes every bit as American as Apple Pie. It’s a flavor combination so commonplace most people can’t pick it out for what it is: Allspice with a touch of cloves. These are spices that are as old as the American colonies. When we think of American comfort food, the Thanksgiving Feasts, and Apple Pie, we are saying that allspice (a fundamental spice in all these foods) is one of those things that identifies us as Americans every bit as much as curry is associated with India and various Persian delicacies.

Certain spices pair particularly well with certain foods. Nutmeg, for instance, is almost universally recognized as the secret ingredient to great vegetables. Allspice, on the other hand, rounds out dairy like no other spice. Do you want to make mac ‘n cheese that is absolutely unforgettable? Well, certainly you must add a wee bit of mustard to the concoction. But, don’t forget a pinch or two of allspice. The cheese will be cheesier. At breakfast the eggs will be eggier. At desert, the milk shake will be shakier, no matter if it’s chocolate, strawberry, or malted vanilla. Dairy aches for allspice.

Which is why ketchup is such a natural addition to eggs at breakfast and mac ‘n cheese at  noon. The allspice adds the pop and the cloves add the bite to the eggs, sausage, and potatoes, that you hashed together on your plate before scooping them on a piece of toast.

But instead of pumping ketchup onto your fries or glopping it over your breakfast, put a tiny bit on a spoon and taste it. Consider its subtlety: Sweet, sour, (and now that you know) allspice, cloves, garlic, and maybe a hint of onion and celery seed. Pretend you’ve never tasted ketchup before in your life.

Certainly it’s as exotically American as chutney is exotically Indian or hoisen is exotically Chinese. It’s only ordinary because we Americans were fortunate enough to grow up with it … a blob on our high chair trays in which to dip our hot dog pieces, a squirt on our potatoes so we would eat them at the dinner table without fussing.

Mom’s have been in on the secret for generations. Ketchup is actually a glorious and wonderful taste surprise … once we actually taste it again for the first time.

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