I loathe ketchup. Everything about it. It taints the presentation of a good meal, bathing it in B-level horror blood. It overwhelms natural flavors. It disrupts the cook’s intent for your food, and even stands in nicely as a back-handed compliment. It beckons to the laziness in all of us, much in the same way that Sriracha does.* My respect for a person inversely correlates quite well with how much ketchup they use on anything, even eggs and potatoes. I loathe ketchup and everything it stands for.
This is not a perfunctory thing, I’ve been wrestling with it for quite some time. As a kitchen/food amateur, it started as a mild annoyance, but spread like the mold in my compost bin. Originally, my disgust for ketchup was tied to my geography. In Chicago, you do not put ketchup on a hot dog. You just don’t do it and you don’t ask questions. It’s this cultural thing, very exclusive and Chicago. It confuses a lot of people and others find it apocryphal, but it’s such a Chicago thing. My nine-year old cousin who only eats chicken fingers won’t touch ketchup, and I assume it’s more cultural than anything (you can never be 100 percent confident when surveying someone under the age of thirteen).
When I started cooking in college, ketchup and sriracha saved many meals. I lived in a cramped house with a cramped kitchen and an extremely inefficient electric stove. I tried to cook, but I never got anything right. My sauces remained stratified and meat overcooked for fear of undercooking, normal mistakes for someone with no kitchen experience and an overprotective mother to make and label as “dinner.” But like most things, I better with practice. With the help of an incredibly fantastic roommate/chef, I learned a ton about how certain foods were supposed to taste.** I learned that good food was easy to make, you just needed to think about it and use all of your fresh ingredients. Trust your hands, instincts, and most importantly, trust the food. Ketchup only subverts this trust.
A lot of this points back towards America’s culinary history, a story that my mom often relates to my own childhood and discovery of food.*** Ketchup became a part of the American dining experience, to the point of oversaturation. Big brands produced metric tonnes of the stuff and drowned out competition, pairing it with other American favorites. The trend served to homogenize the dining experience, leaving us to rely on ketchup and other mechanized products like spam and Lawry’s seasoning salt rather than the natural flavors.**** When I was a kid, I couldn’t get enough of that stuff. Frozen food and Sweet Baby Ray’s contributed roughly 30% of my total nutrient load. I craved this American experience, heavy on sugars and salt, masking the originality of what’s underneath.
Now that I don’t live in the same city as my parents, I feel sad because I could have been eating my mom’s food the whole time. American dining has followed a similar trend, emphasizing regions and cultures over blanket statements. Similarly, much of my cooking now embraces the lessons I’ve learned from my mother and grandmother, informed primarily by my heritage. My stance on ketchup mirrors my stance on culture: we cannot and should not move away from it. It’s the stuff of memories, and for the most part, it’s all we have.
This post was inspired by Steve Albini’s totally awesome food blog. I hope to be a professional jerk like him someday.
*=I love Sriracha, but it makes me a much worse cook overall. My roommate pointed this out to me over dinner, and now I’m extremely paranoid about my own cooking abilities.
**=My mother and my grandmother are the two most amazing cooks I know, and this is in no way an indictment of any culinary missteps (they don’t make them). It just took me a long time to start thinking about food the way that they did. Nowadays, I consult them on pretty much everything I cook.
***=Unfortunately for everybody, the Smithsonian’s America Eats exhibit has closed, including the replica of Julia Child’s kitchen. I don’t have sources for this paragraph, but trust me, the information was in this exhibit.
****=I have read that this American diet lead to a country-wide distaste for bold beers, giving rise to the cheaper, more malevalent macrobrew culture that we know today.
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