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Ketchup’s versatility gives license to pour it on

I really don’t think about it very often, but I’ve had a long and diverse history with ketchup, a history that probably isn’t much different from most Americans. In this country we use countless gallons of ketchup, far more than is consumed in places like Paris or Florence—places with established credentials in gastronomy, which is short for the cooking and eating of good food.

Ketchup is generally unseen in locations like that, relegated to a remote pantry in the kitchen, where it can be found on those rare occasions when a customer requests a serving. Gourmets generally shun ketchup as an unnecessary condiment, the use of which only succeeds in overwhelming the flavor the chef had created. I’ve been told it is grossly impolite or even vulgar to request ketchup in what might be described as a classy joint.

Yes, while it isn’t routinely served in other countries, just the opposite is true in the United States. In the majority of our restaurants, the ketchup bottle is an essential feature. I have applied ketchup on all the usual foods items, and I have witnessed it being used by other diners in combinations that I considered to be distasteful but imaginative.

However, I’ve learned that there are no statutes governing the applications of ketchup, limiting its use. For years there was a modest controversy about the product: Some bottlers labeled it catsup and others called it ketchup. The pronunciation and the taste were approximately the same no matter how it was spelled. The ketchup spelling eventually prevailed.

Ketchup was used sparingly during my boyhood. Hamburgers, yes. Meatloaf, yes. Hotdogs, yes. I cannot recall any other menu items where ketchup was served. Fried potatoes, no. My mother’s kitchen wasn’t equipped to prepare French fries, although she occasionally fried up a batch in a skillet. When ready, they were salted and served without further elaboration. As I approached my teens I was shocked the first time I saw a ketchup bottle being shaken over a plate of fried potatoes in a luncheonette. At our house, the policy on ketchup use was conservative; dabs or dollops were encouraged.

As the years passed and I became more independent, my relationship with ketchup changed, both regarding where it was used and in what amount. I was frequently cautioned concerning overuse—always with the explanation that too much would make ketchup the primary flavor of whatever food was being served. I eventually decided that smothering with ketchup was the strategy favored by many.

Years ago I had a friend who slathered ketchup on cottage cheese. It was very colorful. He found the cottage cheese somewhat distasteful but knew it was a good source of protein, so, as he explained, he “doctored it up.” I thought he was strange; that was confirmed later when I read that cottage cheese doused with ketchup was a favorite of President Richard Nixon.

Ketchup is rarely a factor in Chinese restaurants. I suppose that statement could be extended to all other places featuring Asian cuisine. That is one of the great ironies of the restaurant industry. Why? Because the Chinese are credited with the creation of ketchup in 1690, as a ghastly concoction of pickled fish and spices known as “ke-tsiap.” It was modified in subsequent years and made its way to Europe on trading ships in the 18th century as a sauce or paste. By the late 19th century, Henry J. Heinz pioneered the commercial ketchup business in the United States.

Versatility is a notable quality of ketchup. The other night I spread some on a serving of kale. It made a real statement.

Dick Hirsch is a longtime contributor to the Opinion page.

4/10/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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