In Defense of Ketchup

by Christine Adams Beckett

While living in Paris, my family and I used to patronize a café on the rue Princesse called Coffee Parisien, an American fare pseudo-diner that served hamburgers and french fries, pastrami sandwiches and pancakes on paper place mats with portraits of the American presidents printed on it. We had spent a year in France before we discovered the place, and had already become accustomed to the new food, which of course was not a difficult task. But homesickness tended to set in regularly: when hearing the very foreign sounding sirens of the gendarmes, listening to my then two-year old son sing “The Side Walks of New York” cover by Dan Zanes, and, of course, when craving a cheeseburger. So when in need of a kid-friendly break from all that croque monsieur, omelettes and moules, we would schedule a Saturday outing to Coffee Parisien.

During one Saturday afternoon, as we settled in to our table full of American treats at Coffee Parisien, my husband grabbed the ketchup bottle and in his South Plainfield, New Jersey manner, tapped the neck on its 57 pickle logo to coerce the contents. The bottle was practically empty, so the process — normally done with the ease of an American expert — took a bit more time, prompting a neighboring diner to offer an uninvited lesson on how to properly force the ketchup from the bottle, lessening the viscosity without anticipation.

“Monsieur, c’est comme ça,” he said as he slapped the bottom of the glass bottle, and gestured to my husband.

Without hesitation, my usually well-mannered, astute husband reverted to type and said simply, “Buddy. I’m from JERSEY! I don’t need a ketchup tutorial.” Hearing the Staten Island-esque accent on the “Joisey”, I got a little nervous. Thankfully, the waitress came over with a full bottle and Hubby tapped the 57 again, all the while keeping eye contact with his neighbor de Gaul; with just a few able taps he released a slow stream of the red goo onto his plate, sticking his tongue into his cheek and clearing his throat cockily. He recapped the bottle and spun it in his palm in a glorious red circle blur – cowboy style – and returned it to its respective place next to the salt and pepper.

It was the one and only time while living in Paris that we took pride in our ketchup pouring skills, and were willing to flaunt them. The following year, we would find ourselves apologizing for our ketchup. After my son had enrolled in the École Maternelle (pre school), we decided to host a New York City-themed birthday party for him, New York being the place of his birth. We invited his entire class, featuring all the Big Apple favorite treats, including hot dogs, coca cola and cupcakes. But serving the dreaded condiment was a culinary faux-pas from which I never recovered.

“François! Il faut pas que tu mange ça!” said one horrified parent, bolting into my kitchen to save his very French son from destroying his frankfurter with American poison.

Turning to wide-eyed me, he simply said “I don’t want heem to have zis stuff. Iz very bad for you, all the shoogahr.” I scratched my head as I thought of the snack traditionally served during the 4 o’clock “gouter” after school: a chunk of a baguette with a square of dark chocolate in the middle, washed down with a tumbler of water with a good dash of grenadine syrup in it. And he was complaining about the sugar? Hell, chocolate was even for breakfast in Paris! How many times did I spy a child walking to school all the while gnoshing on a pain au chocolat en route?

Ketchup was one of those American imports that was simply not welcomed in Paris, unlike Levi jeans and Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers. The French culture is very connected to their agriculture, their cuisine, their art form. A typical French chef will not serve a certain kind of steak well done because it will destroy the flavor of the cut of meat. Each cut is lovingly rubbed with herbs with tender hands in just the right proportion. It is a thing of beauty. So please don’t cook it well done (the dreaded “bien cuit”). And whatever you do, don’t dump that red viscous concoction on it.

An American ex-pat couldn’t even buy ketchup at most Parisian chain supermarkets like Monoprix, Franprix or Carrefour. It required a special trip to the Grande Epicerie de Paris, or the American market “Thanksgiving”.

So in what do the French dip their potatoes fried in the French manner? In hotels that cater to the American tourist, yes: ketchup is readily available, but it is not in your typical bistro. Mayonnaise ou béarnaise? Vinegar? Oui. Ketchup? Non.

In retrospect, I do not take offense, this rejection of American culture, as ketchup is not really American in origin. There are many other delicacies that Americans enjoy and call their own but are simply not: hot dogs are German, apple pie recipes date back to the time of Chaucer in England, and Coca Cola… Scratch that, the teeth-rotting substance is all our own. But ketchup is Chinese in origin: originally called ke-tsiap (meaning, “brine of pickled fish”), it had no tomato base in its original recipe and was much thinner in its consistency. Something like soy, the Chinese used it mainly as a dressing for fish. Ke-tsiap was discovered in Asia, a bit further west in Malaysia, by English explorers in the 17th century. The term ketchup is obviously a bastardization of the original Chinese word and it has stuck, with varying, confusing spellings.

It was we Americans who were responsible for adding tomatoes to the pot. The first recipe calling for tomatoes appeared in 1801 in the American cookbook, Sugar House Book. Ironically, many Americans at the time feared the raw tomato. The “love apple”, the tomato was coined, and was first imported from France (yes France!) by Thomas Jefferson and somehow got a bad reputation for being poisonous, but the process by boiling (some recipes called for over two hours of boiling time), apparently removed any fear from diners’ hearts.

It gradually grew in popularity until F & J Heinz introduced his mass-produced bottled kind, offering “blessed relief for mother and the other women in the household,” suggesting that making the ketchup was an arduous task that ranked up there not only in tedium but in frequency of other dreaded chores, like cleaning the laundry or dishes. The iconic bottle offering 57 varieties was born, saving the American housewife and disgusting the French for generations to come.

A few months ago, after sending aforementioned hubby to the market to collect milk and bread, he came home with a variety of other necessities, like Ben & Jerry’s Late Night Snack ice cream (made with chocolate-covered potato chips), gallons of pomegranate juice and Heinz tomato ketchup made with balsamic vinegar. Always a victim to the impulses of a Saturday night grocery getter, I was not surprised that what should have fit in one bag somehow expanded to four.

“What’s with the gourmet ketchup?” I chuckled, vaguely remembering the green apple and purple ketchup varieties that were released about a decade ago, failing miserably. This bottle’s contents was distinctly darker than the bright red repulsion with which I offended our young French friend’s gastronomic sensibilities almost 8 years ago.

I in turn got a tutorial from my born-and-bred Jersey boy about all the benefits of ketchup: its concentration of tomatoes offers a good amount of the antioxidant lycopene, for one. Even Ronald Reagan ordered the US Department of Agriculture to classify ketchup as a vegetable in 1981, but the move was widely derided by the left and therefore abandoned. Studies have been done — at Harvard University no less — to prove that a group of 47,000 men whose diet contained a large amount of lycopene had a drastically lower incidence of prostate cancer. Other studies expand that list to include lung, breast, rectal and uterine cancers. It can reduce your cholesterol, lessen the risk for developing diabetes, fight osteoporosis. It even lessens the risk of gum disease and cataracts. It is an anti-aging weapon and will improve male fertility! The latter studies, of course, were all funded by the H.J. Heinz company with no mention of what their product regularly accompanies: fatty, chopped red meat and potatoes fried with cholesterol-laden grease.

But let’s not kill the messenger. Warmer days have arrived and our grills are back on the patio. Burgers will most certainly be featured on many a suburban menu, so: bon appetit! Serve up the ketchup with your burgers and dogs! Just don’t dump it on a filet mignon, avec ou sans pommes frites.