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Food + Cooking

Ketchup Contemplated

My relationship with America’s favorite condiment is long and complicated—and so, for that matter, is ketchup’s culinary history.

As summer approaches and sales of the country’s best-selling condiment head for their cookout-fueled annual peak, it seems as good a time as any to publicly question my first and longest culinary obsession: ketchup. I’m a sucker for the stuff—when I eat a burger and fries I’m likely to empty three-quarters of whatever ketchup bottle is on the table—but recently, for health reasons and matters of food politics, I started to think twice about my compulsive ketchup consumption. And as I did, I discovered a whole world of ketchup beyond the brick-red sauce that I know and love.

Like apple pie and the hamburger, tomato ketchup is woven into the thread of the American culinary experience (historian Elizabeth Rozin called it “a profound expression of American-ness”) and in recent years it has become doctrinaire to praise the crimson condiment as a product of unique balance that delivers spicy, sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami, all in one piquant package—or packet, if you prefer. As Malcolm Gladwell asked in a 2004 article for The New Yorker, “How many things in the supermarket run the sensory spectrum like this?”

The fact that ketchup makes all those taste receptors light up like a pachinko machine may be largely responsible for the product’s immense popularity. Some people believe its tart acidity is the perfect counterbalance to fatty foods, while others think that the bright red color recreates the raw meal that our inner Australopithecus wishes it were gnawing on. Whatever the reasons, we eat a lot of ketchup. Nearly 860,000 tons of it is consumed in the U.S. each year—approximately 45 percent in homes and 55 percent in restaurants. (And by the way, the oft-repeated claim that salsa sells better than ketchup doesn’t hold up when you look at it in terms of pounds instead of dollars: Salsa is more expensive, but by sheer volume ketchup is still king.)

Heinz controls 60 percent of the ketchup market in this country (as well as 40 percent of the proprietary seed market for tomatoes grown specifically for processing). For most Americans, Heinz is to ketchup as Kleenex is to facial tissue—it’s the household name, perhaps even the platonic ideal. When Jeffery Steingarten set out on an epic ketchup tasting for his 1992 article “Playing Ketchup,” the categories he created to judge each product were “Worse than Heinz,” “Heinz,” “Better than Heinz,” and “Not Really Ketchup.” I certainly understand this logic; the flavor of classic Heinz is always what I’m expecting when I pour ketchup on anything, and to me it’s still the best-tasting bottled variety out there. But it’s not the go-to in my house anymore. To avoid the combination of high fructose corn syrup and corn syrup found in the current classic recipe, I’ve made the subtle shift to organic Heinz. (Defenders say HFCS is no worse than natural sugar, while others believe it to be, as Daniel Engber at Slate recently put it, “unhealthy, unnatural, and unappetizing.”) Outside the home I’m not as much of a stickler; at restaurants I’ll still gladly smother a burger with non-organic ketchup, but if it’s not Heinz, it’s usually disappointing. The one exception is homemade ketchup, which I’m always genuinely excited to see on a menu—because when the homemade stuff is good, it’s really good.

The single best tomato ketchup in my memory (and the one that first introduced me to the concept of homemade ketchup) was a clove-spiced, barbecue-inspired version made by Chef Jay Jenc, formerly of Washington, D.C.’s Café Saint-Ex. It tasted almost nothing like Heinz and was served up next to damn-near-perfect fries, dusted with Montreal steak seasoning. I’ve had other homemade varieties since then, but making ketchup from scratch is still not nearly as common as it should be. Why is it that chefs who work diligently to find the best combination of meats to comprise their burger and fret over the consistency of their fries stop short at ketchup?

Jeremy King, co-owner of The Wolseley in London and The Monkey Bar in New York, recently gave an answer to that question in a New York Times article written in praise of the iconic Heinz bottle: “Sometimes we have to accept that we can’t better something that already exists.”

Heinz does take its ketchup very seriously, and in some respects it seems more like an artisanal product than the average mass-produced food item. To create its flagship product, Heinz primarily uses six proprietary seed varieties. They all have names such as Heinz-9557, have been traditionally crossbred (no genetic modifications), and are “designed to produce our perfect ketchup,” says David Ciesinski, a Heinz employee with the Suessian title of Vice President of Ketchup. The tomatoes are picked at the height of the season, converted into paste in California, and shipped to Freemont, Ohio, where the company’s primary manufacturing plant produces 700,000 bottles—and upwards of 2 million food-service packets—of ketchup every day. Heinz also has an R&D facility located in Cranberry, Pennsylvania, employing food scientists, microbiologists, chemists, and nutritionists, and featuring a scale replica of the ketchup plant to test small batches of new products. The result is a condiment that many chefs consider too perfect to mess with.

The ones who do mess with it are those who (perhaps unsurprisingly) seem to share a general opposition to processed foods. Peter Hoffman of New York’s Savoy and Back Forty restaurants creates house ketchup for his establishments. “For me it really grew out of the positive side of what our cuisine is,” he says. “I have no interest in supporting the industrialized food supply. So every chance that I have to look at how we can free ourselves of that, I’m going to avail myself of it, and ketchup is certainly one place.” (Hoffman adds that he does keep some of the bottled stuff on hand that “can be had upon request” to please customers unwilling to accept anything beyond what they’ve become accustomed to.)

But house ketchup is just one side of this story. While my local Whole Foods has dozens of jelly and jam flavors ranging from whortleberry to mint, and while I’ve recently tasted both Douglas Fir chocolates and Douglas Fir eau de vie, ketchup continues to run red, despite a colorful history. But the future of ketchup is most likely to be found in its past.

Historians John and Karen Hess write in Taste of America that “until the second half of the nineteenth century, ketchup usually meant a pickle of mushrooms, oysters, or walnuts.” The pair go on to paint the shallot as humble lost hero of our national culinary heritage before vilifying the tomato (which “drove out the shallot as good money drives out bad”), and specifically tomato ketchup, for being primarily responsible for the dumbing-down of our national culinary culture, lamenting tomato ketchup’s sugary supremacy in the face of the “great variety of ketchups that characterized early American cooking.” It’s a lost legacy that the FDA seems perfectly comfortable ignoring, strictly defining “ketchup,” “catchup,” and “catsup” as, above all, a tomato product.

According to the book Pure Ketchup, by Andrew F. Smith, as the 19th century came to a close tomato ketchup was reported by the National Herald Tribune and the Scientific American Supplement to be America’s national condiment, even though Americans still had a number of tomato-free commercial ketchup options that included celery, curry, cucumber, and even oyster. These choices thinned during the 20th century, but still appeared sporadically in food media; throughout the 1940s and ‘50s, and into the ‘60s, Gourmet featured recipes for cranberry, currant, mushroom, grape, walnut, and apple ketchups. Some of these ketchups still hold small audiences in other countries, and recipes for ketchup varieties beyond tomato still pop up every so often in magazines, online, and on menus. But as we roll into the summer of 2009, bottoming out in the worst economy the country has seen since the Great Depression, there is no better time for ketchup’s flavorful past to return: More people are cooking at home; the nation’s newfound interest in frugality should spur a rise in preserving and pickling over the summer; and the maw of the Internet is always looking for a new trend to anoint as the next big thing. (Gooseberry ketchup is the new black?) So try pairing some cranberry ketchup with a turkey burger, or put grape ketchup on your scrambled eggs, or dip some lamb kofte in cucumber ketchup—because, frankly, if we’re making things like maple-bacon lollipops, why shouldn’t we get creative with ketchup?