Outside the Heinz

Ketchup with Friends

by Emma Young

Ketchup with Friends

Maggie Shannon

Outside my windows are tomatoes on the vine, peppers both sweet and hot, eggplants, celery, and onions. Eventually, they will be part of a collaboration between my friend Olivia and me. They will become ketchup.

Reliably, when Olivia and I sit down to eat, there is some hunk of Island meat, multiple vegetables done multiple ways, and a huge bowl of greens with herbs and edible flowers. We feed small armies of relaxed friends. They pass around jars of our homemade ketchup, a delicious necessity.

She and I have been perfecting our recipes with what we can grow here, and we’ve found there is not one way to do ketchup. In his essay, “The Ketchup Conundrum,” Malcolm Gladwell argues the opposite. The numbers show that those who try to sell a variation can never hold a candle to Heinz. It’s a condiment designed to treat each of the five flavor profiles: sweet, sour, umami, bitter, and salty. And, as Gladwell explains, there is something evolutionary that makes us crave that exact blend of flavors. After the age of three, when once we would have begun to forage on our own, it is safest to seek foods you know, as foreign tastes could prove poisonous. Hence the satisfaction, especially for young children, that comes with smothering your food in ketchup.

And at least here in America, that bright red, supermarket substance is readily available enough to get people hooked. We’ve made it a part of our cultural identity. The earliest Americans valued the preservative quality of vinegar to keep the condiment for bland winter dinners. Sugar became more readily available in the 19th century, and the substance became more addictive. Then of course, the advent of fast food in the mid 20th century cemented ketchup’s place in our history.

In the 1980s, under Jimmy Carter and then Ronald Regan, public school lunches almost took a hit when condiments nearly qualified as a serving of vegetables. Sure, there are cucumbers in relish and tomatoes in ketchup, but the amount one would need to consume to gain any nutritional value kept the legislation from passing. The efforts did, however, further the notion that ketchup is a staple in every cafeteria, and in every home.

Ketchup lore holds that the condiment originated in China in the 1600s, with a base of fermented fish. In Britain in the 1700s the main ingredient was more often oysters or green walnuts than a vegetable. It wasn’t until the 1800s that an American tried it with tomatoes. But each variation maintained a deep, complex profile of flavors, and that, my friend, is the point.

Olivia and I are planning a meal. It’s the end of a busy weekend, and we are visiting our farmer friends, picking up whatever produce is left to cook and share. “I think we should roast a goat,” she says, “and definitely have at least three kinds of ketchup.”