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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Got Ketchup?

January 27, 2015

Got Ketchup?

My son and I were having lunch the other day and he asked me, “Dad, how long has ketchup been around?” I didn’t know the answer. It’s not even something that I had thought of before. So I did what any well-meaning father would do when he wants to impart wisdom into his 13-year old son’s quickly developing mind— I Googled it.

I won’t bore you with the history of ketchup, but it originated in the Orient, and the good folks at Hunts and Heinz wouldn’t even be able to market the ancient version today. Put it this way: If there was a category five hurricane just hours away, and in the preparation panic all of the grocery store shelves had been cleared, the original form of ketchup would still be there, untouched. The kids of today would have no interest in dipping their chicken fingers into pureed pickled fish brine with spices.

Over the years, ketchup eventually morphed into some type of mushroom paste before morphing again into a watery tomato-based sauce in the early 1800s. It was Mr. Heinz, in the early 1900s who added pectin to the recipe and made the stuff so damn thick that we make fools out of ourselves in restaurants trying to coax the crimson condiment out of a bottle.

As a kid, there were two things that my family couldn’t seem to keep in our pantry— ketchup and milk. I was always walking across the street to the neighbor’s house to beg and borrow ketchup or milk. Obviously those were the days before Sam’s club when one could wheel a giant cart through a store and purchase enough ketchup in one case to feed an entire army battalion, “Bring the forklift to aisle eight, Mrs. St. John is out of ketchup again.”

Being the youngest, I was the one that always had to go to the neighbor’s house and ask if I could borrow ketchup or milk. It was embarrassing. The looks on neighbor’s faces was one of bewilderment— why can’t Dinny St. John just buy enough ketchup or milk to just make it through one meal with those boys?

And “borrow” was a very loose usage of the word. I never remember walking back across the street to the neighbors house saying, “You know what, we have taken gallons of ketchup and milk from you over the years, here is a quart of milk and a couple of bottles of ketchup as a modest form of repayment and as a small token of our appreciation. Though would you mind storing these somewhere nearby, as tomorrow I’m likely to be— once again— knocking on your door in need of one, or both, of these two items since my mother is still working on the proper amount that will keep us from running out?”

I have had a long, storied relationship with ketchup over the years. My hamburger was dressed with mayonnaise and ketchup until I was eight-years old. That’s when my across-the-street neighbor and friend Laura told me a story about a witch lady (a story couldn’t be repeated here) and mayonnaise that forced me to give up that condiment for three decades. I’m sure her mother was wishing that the story had been about ketchup so they wouldn’t have had to keep giving away all of theirs to the across-the-street neighbors who never could seem to keep the pantry inventory stocked. Though on second thought, maybe it was her mom that put her up to telling me the story in the first place. “I’m so sick of ‘loaning’ ketchup to the St. John’s. First it was milk, then ketchup. They’re probably coming for the mayonnaise next.”

I then moved to ketchup and mustard on my hamburger, and a few years later added pickles to the mix. These days I have dropped the ketchup and mainly eat a hamburger with mustard, pickle, and lettuce.

Mustard is a great condiment. I like all varieties— spicy brown, whole-grain, Cajun, Dijon, and even plain yellow mustard. There is character and depth in the flavor profile of most mustards, and they add zing to a dish. In comparison, ketchup is boring.

My kids really aren’t big ketchup eaters like my brother and I were. I have long stated that Ranch dressing is the ketchup of the 21st Century, followed closely by honey-mustard sauce. That’s a push.

I still eat ketchup on fries, and use it atypically on a few other things— butterbeans being the main offender.

At my house today, we don’t borrow food from the neighbors. As a matter of fact, now that I think about it, in my adult life I have never walked across the street and borrowed anything from anyone. Conversely, neighbors have never knocked on our door and asked us for a last-minute key ingredient needed to help them complete their supper plans. If we are out of something we just send the daughter with the driver’s license to the grocery store.

Later during the same meal my son asked, “What’s the difference between ‘ketchup’ and ‘catsup’?” By that time I was so sick of talking about condiments that I told him to Google it himself and changed the subject to the Super Bowl.


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