by Michael Campbell | March 1, 2011 4:01 pm
I was 27 years old when I learned that ketchup doesn’t come with a refrigerator. Every fridge I had ever met had ketchup, mustard and pickles. I never met anyone who bought ketchup.
My formative years had been spent living with a series of women, starting with my mother. They ranged from “caretaker” to “obsessive she-beast.” I was encouraged to do “boy things” like mow grass and stick my arm into the toilet up to my shoulder to retrieve a dropped brooch or contact lens. I did not have security clearance for refrigerator inventory.
Newly divorced, I was the first tenant in a freshly-renovated apartment, complete with new appliances. I opened the refrigerator to a scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey. I blinked as bright light poured out from the gleaming white plastic and chrome, without a hint of humanity. I pulled out a note pad and wrote across the top: “Grocery List.” Beneath I wrote: “Everything.”
At the grocery store I learned that cinnamon, rosemary and cayenne are about the same price as silver. I needed basics: glassware, flour, sugar, measuring cups, a can opener, mixing bowls, and ketchup. I looked, but there was no financing department.
I was surprised to discover that “ketchup” was not a brand name. I found a variety of bottle sizes and shapes, but I figured it didn’t matter because the contents were the identical tempera paint red. I chose Heinz because “Heinz ketchup” sounded familiar. I selected a tub of Plochman’s mustard because it came in a familiar yellow plastic barrel with a red nipple on top, like that from which I nursed mustard as a kid. I hadn’t noticed the barrel of mustard had a name on it. Heinz made mustard too, but “Heinz mustard” didn’t sound right.
A new refrigerator with a fresh bottle of mustard and ketchup is a glorious site, clean as an operating room. My apartment was now a home.
Mustard comes in many varieties: spicy, brown, sweet, maybe flecked with brown bits of what I think are seeds but look like flies. There is “Dijon,” which is French for “someone who pays twice as much for mustard.” These are gourmet foods, not condiments. You can tell the difference because the fancy mustards go on the top shelf of the refrigerator with your olives, feta cheese and capers. The yellow barrel of mustard goes in the door next to the ketchup.
Ketchup takes up a whole section at the grocery store. Family size, picnic-size, upside-down bottle with no-drip spout. But the stuff inside is all just ketchup. Some try labeling it “catsup,” which makes my pinky itch, to stick out. “Catsup” sounds like dinner’s ready at a Vietnamese restaurant. I don’t see any hot and spicy ketchup, smoked chunky mango ketchup, or ketchup with black flecks. The Heinz guys are smacking their foreheads for not thinking of it, because while they were making fancy upside-down bottles with clever slogans, the Mexicans invented hot and spicy chunky ketchup. They named it salsa.
So how did ketchup earn a place in every American kitchen? We don’t put ketchup on chicken, pizza or tacos. The bottle in my refrigerator today is the same one I bought in 1987, having outlived three refrigerators. Thanks to the magic of the American food industry, it’s still edible. I’ve been through 200 bottles of Ranch dressing, which flavors everything from chips to cheeseburgers — just about everything but salads — but Ranch is still considered a second-tier condiment. I’ve seen Ranch-flavored Doritos, surely proof of its ubiquity. There are no ketchup-flavored chips, no hint of Ketchup Triscuits.
Yet ketchup is part of our religious ritual. Your burger arrives. You open it, lift off and discard the lettuce like a wet napkin. Shake-shake-shake of salt, shook-shook-shook of pepper. Squeeze a spiral of ketchup followed by a zig-zag of mustard. Any restaurant table is stocked with four items. You know what they are. Since we all agree it is supposed to be on the food, why doesn’t the chef apply it for you with his masterful hand, fancy as a $5 cappuccino?
I’ve shopped for refrigerators. When I go to Bulbous Appliance Mart, the dazzling array of crisper trays, door options and water dispensers is overwhelming. What I really want? A white refrigerator that comes with a stop-sign red bottle of ketchup and a PlaySkool yellow tub of mustard in the door tray.
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