Monday, August 20, 2012

The Politics of Ketchup

The Ever-Present Ketchup Cups
The lay of the land as far as ketchup politics go is funny in our house as Seth and I are on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to the stuff. Seth eats it all the time and more or less with every meal. It's rare that there isn't at least a small pool of it on his plate and being out of ketchup is kind of a big deal for him. This is especially the case when we're eating something for dinner that is traditionally served with ketchup, like burgers and fries.

It's not like he won't eat something without ketchup, but he does strongly, strongly prefer to eat it with -- enough that whether or not there's a bottle of it at least offered at a restaurant will at least somewhat affect whether or not he wants to eat there in the first place. Those "no ketchup" places -- like that Louie's Lunch place in Connecticut -- irritate him, as he doesn't like to be told what he can and can't have on his burger... and he wants at least the option of adding ketchup pretty much all the time.

I'm the exact opposite as far as my personal feelings go. I don't have an issue with other people liking ketchup, but I strongly dislike it myself (along with most commonly used condiments). In fact, I will not eat something that has ketchup on it. Not a burger and not fries. I just really, really don't like it and it actually irritates me that so many burgers -- especially at fast food joints and whatnot -- will come ready-made with the ketchup already on the bun and everything.

I hate it when food places simply assume that it's so insane and uncommon not to want condiments like ketchup on your food that they just go ahead and squirt the shit on there for you without even being asked to. I have to insist twice that the ketchup be left off my shit and even so -- at least 50% of the time it winds up on there anyway, basically rendering the whole burger inedible to me and ruining my whole day. Really, when I check my bun to make sure no rogue condiments were added without my say-so and I see some? It's like I want to crack skulls or something.

The funny thing is that Seth and I aren't ketchup Nazis or complete weirdos. A lot of people feel like one or the other of us when it comes to ketchup and the use of common condiments in general. But why do they feel so strongly about something that seems so inconsequential? It's something I've been thinking (and reading) a lot about lately.

Why Ketchup Lovers Can't Live Without It

As far as why some people are so in love with ketchup, it seems to be for a couple of reasons. To begin with, many people who love ketchup are the sort of folks who appreciate a common thread of familiarity to be there with most, if not all, of the food they eat. This is especially the case for items like burgers or fries. No matter where you're eating or how special-snowflake a particular burger option may be, ketchup is always there for you, taking the edge off the foreignness of the experience and allowing you to ease yourself into it a little more easily. It's kind of a like the foodie version of your favorite wingman in a way.

The sort of person who can't imagine life without ketchup also tends to have favorite ingredients, seasonings, and flavors that show up in many of the foods they cook at home. Once they find a taste they like, they tend to want to stick with it and add it to almost everything. This isn't to say that they don't also like trying new things. However, they will probably try those things in conjunction with one or several old standbys as part of the mix as well, including but not limited to ketchup.

Burger and Fries with Ketchup
It also seems that for some, eating ketchup (or any favorite condiment) with the majority of suitable foods is a bit of a habit that developed at some point in the past. Many people I know who swear by ketchup grew up used to eating food that wasn't very good at least sometimes, either because their parents were terrible cooks or because they ate a ton of fast food. Ketchup was a way to add flavor and edibility that wasn't otherwise there in regards to certain items, making a meal that was actually pretty gross potentially a lot better by comparison.

That said, ketchup lovers eventually grow to view their favorite condiment as something that always enhances a meal. It doesn't overpower the flavor of the burger or the steak for them, but compliments it. Even if a given meal like a burger is damn good by itself, the ketchup connoisseur probably feels it has the potential to be even better with ketchup on the side. When asked to chime in for this on behalf of ketchup lovers everywhere, Seth even said that ketchup on the side for dipping can bring flavors and nuances out in his food for him in much the same way a beer or a wine can.

Why Ketchup Haters Can't Stand the Stuff

The most common reason why people who dislike ketchup and other common condiments feel that way seems to be that they view the red stuff as a third wheel -- the guy no one invited to the party, but who always seems to be there, even when it's really not his scene. I can kind of be this way, actually... especially when ordering burgers at a fast food place or a diner.

Seriously, it doesn't seem to matter what the actual flavor profile of a specialty burger will be. Ketchup (or his ugly brother, mustard... or his whore sister, mayo) always seems to be there, too and I don't get it. How or why ketchup, mustard, and mayo are necessary on something like a mushroom Swiss burger or a bacon chili burger is beyond my capacity to understand. The chili or the mushroom gravy does a perfectly adequate job of making the sandwich moist and delicious, so it can't just be that people don't like dry burgers. The extra condiments really are there for no particular reason other than the fact that they're "what you put" on burgers... all burgers.

This condiment-hater isn't fooled for a minute though. These unnecessary entities are just party crashing as far as I'm concerned and they need to GTFO until they're invited like proper guests. They can go to other people's parties all they want, but they don't get invites to mine because I like my food pretty simple without a lot of extras that don't need to be there. Love it or hate it, most people can usually at least agree that ketchup is an extra.

Many people also dislike ketchup for one of the same reasons others consider it a staple -- it adds an element to each food you put it on that's always, always the same whether it compliments the dish in question or not. As much as some people like familiarity, others like variety and even total departure as far as flavors go from dish to dish.

It's not uncommon for this sort of person to have vast spice collections that they're constantly adding to or to like to read up on very exotic cuisines just for shits and giggles on a Sunday afternoon. When this type cooks a burger at home and feels the need to add a condiment, they're more likely to create their own special sauce from base ingredients (possibly even including ketchup as one of them) specifically for that particular burger, as opposed to grabbing a bottle of something prepared. They may even be the sort who never likes to make things the same way twice, because they're easily bored with familiar things and familiar ways. Unless something's just unusually amazing, I have the attention span and staying power of a flea, so... yeah. I probably fit this profile to at least some extent.

Can't We All Just Get Along?


I have no effing clue what's going on here.
Trying to talk to other people about ketchup sometimes feels a lot like trying to talk to them about abortion, or parenting, or whether God exists. Everyone has a strong opinion on the matter, everyone thinks they're right, and everyone thinks the guy on the other side of the fence might as well be from Neptune for how well he "gets it". In reality though, there is no right and wrong. There is only opinion.

How a given person feels about ketchup has nothing to do with whether or not ketchup is actually appropriate to use or not. It does, however, have everything to do with how different people approach food and go about enjoying a meal. The guy who likes ketchup isn't automatically an uncultured heathen who doesn't understand good food any more than the guy who doesn't like it is automatically a food snob with a steel rod up their butt. There's nothing wrong with liking ketchup on all your shit and there's nothing wrong with wanting it far, far away from your edibles at all times either.

What I have never understood is why people care so danged much how other people eat their food and why they think they should be making choices about extras like condiments for others. Seriously, can't we all just get along? In my version of a perfect world, ketchup lovers would be able to ask for a bottle of Heinz in just about any good restaurant and at least be offered a homemade house ketchup for their troubles instead of a sneer of contempt. Also, condiment haters like me would never have to worry about getting a burger at a fast food joint that's been pre-defiled with crap they hate because condiments would always, always be right where they belong... on the side for people to use or not as they see fit.

It takes all types to make the world go 'round. Some of those types like ketchup and some of them don't. It's just that simple (and that complicated). So where do you fall on this issue? Ketchup for president? The official sauce of Satan's table? Something in between?
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