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Ketchup: Everything Wrong with America


I was already blaming ketchup for everything wrong with America, but now here’s some evidence, as we have a Smithsonian piece on how ketchup is emblematic of the entire American industrial food system. Even if it doesn’t see this as negative, maybe you should.

In addition to its industrial recipes, Heinz also was instrumental in developing, perfecting, and promoting sanitary production methods, not only for its ketchup but for the dozens of products it manufactured. The company helped standardize bottle and can sterilization, insisted that workers abide by strict rules of cleanliness, and even pushed for sanitary food processing legislation. Other big food processors followed Heinz’s lead. The company made ketchup, and then ketchup influenced the way everything else was processed.

It might not be too far-fetched to argue that later in the century, after altering the way American food tasted and was regulated, ketchup also helped change the way it was grown. Innovations in tomato breeding and mechanical harvester technologies, driven in part by demand for the condiment, helped define modern industrial agriculture. In the 1960s UC Davis scientists developed a mechanical tomato harvester. Around the same time, plant geneticists perfected a tomato with a thick skin and round shape that could withstand machine harvesting and truck transport. This new tomato was arguably short on taste, but the perfect storm of breeding and harvesting technology from which it emerged allowed for a steady supply of tomatoes that kept bottlers and canners in business. Nearly all of the tomatoes produced for sauces and ketchup are products of this moment—as are many other fruits and vegetables produced in the U.S.

If ketchup is what is saving us from food poisoning, give me salmonella or give me death! Wait, those may well be the same thing. Anyway….

Early on, ketchup functioned as a great equalizer, with a “special and unprecedented ability to provide something for everyone.” Tomato ketchup became “entrenched as the primary and most popular of condimental sauces, its appeal to Americans deep and widespread,” wrote food historian Elizabeth Rozin, who called it the “Esperanto of cuisine.” Ketchup functioned as a class leveler. Regardless of income or education, Americans could drop into a roadside diner or barbeque joint. Affordable to most, a burger and fries spiked with ketchup was a democratic, delicious lowest common denominator meal. Today ketchup’s appeal is in part because it embodies principles that Americans prize including consistency, value, and cleanliness. Moreover ketchup’s use, noted Rozin, was shaped by foods and meals that are perceived as “American” in their preparation and presentation: think hamburgers and fries, “ballpark” foods, fast food in general.

Yeah, Americans also elected Donald Trump president, so I’m not sure American principles are really what we want to be resting on here. It seems to me they like ketchup because they have bad taste and were raised in a nation with that won’t even let the Necco wafer die a deserved death. By not embracing ketchup, I guess I am anti-American and opposed to class leveling or whatnot. That’s OK. I did enjoy my time in Belgium last week with its frites and mayo. Finally, civilization.

…And oh, hey, you can buy ketchup that looks like Nickelodeon’s Slime Sauce. Really, it’s not like it could be worse.

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