Ketchup or Shut-Up
Condiments are like old friends — highly thought of, but often taken for granted. — Marilyn Kaytor
I waited until the bartender was distracted and then went to work as quickly as possible.
“Whoa, there — what are you doing?” David asked. I glared at him and continued my task. “Oh, I get it,” David said as he watched me transfer ketchup from the bowl on the counter onto his plate. “You’re the one who asked for extra,” he goaded.
“Just —” I set down my utensils the moment the bartender turned back around. I smiled at her and then spoke in a low voice to David. “I know I did, but they usually bring one more little container — this is a whole bowl; only my dad could get through all of that.”
“So you put it on my plate?”
“I didn’t want it to look like I was wasting it,” I said.
“It’s like Japan all over again,” David said. This time, instead of glaring at him, I smiled at the memory of our stay in Hakone, where I’d repeatedly snuck fishy items onto David’s plate so as not to out myself as a barbarian among all of those dainty, kimono-clad women.
“Except in this case, I like the stuff I’m putting on your plate,” I said. “And fortunately, despite its hipsterrificness, Starlite still serves ketchup.”
I don’t get into heated arguments over politics or religion. Those topics are way too vast, the issues too nuanced. But when it comes to condiments, I see red.
“I mean, who do those people think they are? This is America, for Christ’s sake. How pompous do you have to be to think it’s gauche to put ketchup on a burger? It’s not like I’m asking for syrup to pour over my asparagus — I just want a bit of that vinegary sweetness to accent the savory and the salt. I understand they’re trying to make high quality food with elevated flavors, but ketchup can be part of that. I can still taste the Brandt Beef, caramelized onion, and gruyère on this burger, and I’ve got some ketchup on it. And how dare they serve french fries, the basest of sides, and withhold the freakin’ ketchup. I mean, seriously.”
A certain faction of hipsters have declared war on ketchup. Yet, this ketchup-condemning clique proudly keeps one of the crappiest beers available — Pabst Blue Ribbon — on tap; a beer my craft-brewer friend Jacob told me is “indistinguishable from every other domestic sub-premium brand in its category, such as Bush Light and Natty Ice.” He also said, “PBR has succeeded purely based on irony. It was a brand neglected by its owner, owned by the charitable trust of a dead man, with zero effort put into marketing, and only by virtue of its throwback irony did it become popular among a certain set of people” — the same set who wrinkle their noses when a plebe like me has the audacity to request the great American condiment to accompany my Freedom Fries.
I went to one such ketchup-hating hipster hub downtown, which touts itself for “simple, straightforward food,” such as burgers, fries, and even hotdogs. By asking for ketchup, I earned a sneer from my server. “We don’t do ketchup,” she said. All of the sauces were mayonnaise-based — the one condiment that makes me gag. Sure, they tarted them up with flavor, as with the “smoked chipotle aioli,” but when you break it down, that’s fancy mayonnaise. What about smoked chipotle ketchup? Even the mustard was aioli — all the cool flavors were riding on eggs and oil, the whipped combo of which is gross regardless of the ingredients that are blended in.
When a friend tried to explain to us the concept — that the place was “too good for ketchup,” David told him, “You can make housemade ketchups that are worthy of any five-star restaurant in the world.” He pointed out that Quality Social, another one of our haunts, not only makes their own ketchup but also their own hot sauce, barbecue sauce, worcestershire, and mustard.
I reminded David of that terrible experience, when we had been made to feel like a couple of foodie fledglings. As he dipped a fry in the new puddle of ketchup on his plate, David said, “It seems so arbitrary, like the owner of that place was once done wrong by ketchup.” He chewed on his fry. “There’s a reason ketchup is a classic condiment — it complements meat and fried foods.”
“One of their Yelp reviewers said if you want to drown your food in ketchup, you should go to McDonald’s,” I said.
“What about all the other sauces they offer in which you can drown your food?” David was finally catching up to my level of irritation. “Why not let people eat the food the way they want to eat it? That seems petty and arrogant.”
“Arrogant’s a good word for it,” I said. “Small Bar serves old-school ketchup and mustard — and they offer Tactical Nuclear Penguin, one of the most esoteric and expensive craft beers in the world.”
“The customer’s pleasure should be any restaurant owner’s primary objective,” David said. “I bet the same people who turned up their noses when we asked for ketchup would have no problem asking for wasabi to go with their sushi.”
“Wait — what’s sushi have to do with ketchup?”
“Sushi is a constructed dish,” David said. “It comes with rice, as opposed to sashimi, which is just the fish. Traditionally, you’re not supposed to have wasabi with sushi because the chef, who may have apprenticed for 12 years, has already added the perfect amount to complement the specific type of fish,” David explained. “To then add extra wasabi is an insult to the chef. In essence, you’re saying, ‘You don’t have the skill to prepare this properly.’ But virtually all Japanese restaurants serving sushi in the U.S. have come to realize that many Americans like extra wasabi; therefore, you’ll always find a blob of wasabi on your plate along with the sushi — because they’re catering to the customer, not to their egos.”
“Yeah, well, I can do without wasabi,” I said. “But until this PBR-loving, ketchup-hating crowd finds something else ironic enough to love and mainstream enough to hate, I’m keeping a bottle of Heinz in my purse.”