Monday, November 16, 2009

Ketchup vs. mustard

Malcolm Gladwell's new book, "What the Dog Saw", is a collection of previously published articles from the New Yorker. I'm looking forward to reading it. I like Gladwell. He's been described as a dilettante (both negatively and positively), and says he's interested in pretty much everything. I like his writing, enjoy reading about him, and am mildly jealous. Mr. Gladwell is successful and I am a tremendous underachiever. I'm sure he'd have something to say about why that is. Well, he did, actually, in his last book "Outliers", but I haven't gotten around to reading that yet.

Enough prefacing. I hear one of the chapters in the new book is about why there are so many varieties of mustard while ketchup is just ketchup. For some reason, the question of ketchup vs. mustard variety captures my imagination. Let's see if I come up with anything resembling what Gladwell did (and without a lick of research).

First let me say that I don't like ketchup. I did when I was a young child. I have strong memories of eating hot dogs with ketchup on them. For some reason, a number of these memories involve eating in the restaurant at the Museum of Natural History. There's nothing more to it than that - no memory of dripping ketchup on my clothes or teasing, no, just eating a hot dog with ketchup on it. That's all.

Oddly, I do remember thinking that eating a hot dog with ketchup was the stuff of a kid's diet. Adults ate their frankfurters with mustard and sometimes sauerkraut. At some point, I did, too. I left the ketchup in the dustbin of childhood. This may have coincided with the opening of the Zum Zum restaurants in New York, where they served all sorts of wursts besides the ubiquitious American hot dog, had buns flecked with caraway seeds, and delicious German potato salad. They did not serve ketchup.

I associate ketchup with childhood, bad taste, bad-for-you food, and the sad announcement made during the Reagan administration that ketchup could be considered a daily vegetable serving for the poor (and that's another sort of bad taste).

Besides putting ketchup on a hot dog, what else is it for? French fries and eggs. The idea of putting ketchup on eggs makes me slightly nauseated. For whatever reason, when I picture it, I also picture a cigarette butt on the same plate and bleary mornings in diners after staying up all night. No wonder there's some nausea involved. As to the french fries, I developed a penchant for eating them with mayonnaise a long time ago, a truly artery hardening habit, but one that I find much tastier than that wretched ketchup.

I really do not like ketchup. It's too red. It's too sweet. It doesn't taste like anything real.

When I think of mustard, I imagine many possibilities. Ketchup? The iconic Heinz bottle pops immediately to mind. That glass bottle is a wonderful piece of design, good enough to put on a kitchen table for no other reason than decoration. The other image that arises is one of a young child in a high chair, bib and face smeared with catsup.

There's the problem (besides the too red stuff lacking in real taste). Catsup is for little kids.

I'm sure many a good chef has come up with excellent catsup. Good advertising, high-end packaging and positioning could probably send catsup sales soaring. Now that Gladwell has written about it, unless he's proven that it's impossible to break through decades of the stuff having a bad rap, someone out there will probably now come up with gourmet catsup and lots of it.

Image note: Warhol's 1964 "sculpture."


BitterGrace said...

I don't have much use for mainstream ketchup myself. Never liked it, even on french fries, and ketchup on eggs was one of my father's more disgusting food preferences.

FWIW, though, there are many kinds of traditional "catsups" that aren't anything like Heinz. I have a recipe of pecan ketchup that's quite good, and here's a link to a recipe for mango ketchup. What are the odds that either of them will make to supermarket shelves?

BitterGrace said...

Ha, I just read what I wrote. I'm not even going to try to fix all those typos...

Julie H. Rose said...

Uh oh - I can't find your typos! Pecan ketchup? I love pecans. Mixing them with tomatoes? Hmmm.

If some famous chef gets all hepped up about ketchup perhaps they'll become all the rage.

Ugh. Two outdated cliches in one sentence (above). Worse than typos, imo.

jmcleod76 said...

I'm going to be the lone dissenter here and admit that I love ketchup. As far as commercial brands go, though, I can only eat Heinz - the rest are all imitators and, yes, far to too bland and sweet. I don't think Heinz is too sweet, though, or the least bit boring. It's got a very tangy, vinegary flavor and lots of yummy spices in it.

You're certainly not alone, though. We got some free samples of three different Grey Poupon mustard varieties several mnths ago, and the marketing info that came with them said "When people are very young, they enjoy simple flavors, like ketchup. But as they age, they begin to appreciate the more complex flavor combinations found in mustard."

Don't get me wrong. I do love mustard - the spicier the better - but still I think ketchup is a worthy condiment.

Julie H. Rose said...

Jaime, your being the "lone dissenter" amongst a sampling of THREE isn't saying much! I bet that ketchup is more popular than mustard across the USA. Don't most people put it on fries?

I haven't had it in so long I really can't remember what it tastes like.

Oh, and I believe that Gladwell credits Grey Poupon for the changes in public perceptions of both condiments.