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Connections: Special Sauce

Wed, 09/25/2019 - 12:44

Ketchup was a kitchen staple when I was growing up in the 1940s, as it still is in most American households. You know the saying, “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country”? I think we might better be able to chart the zeitgeist of the United States by keeping an eye not on auto production but on our national condiment.

I have to admit I tried ketchup on cottage cheese once (once being more than enough). This was long ago, before we learned that Richard Nixon liked cottage cheese with ketchup on it for, ugh, breakfast. If I hadn’t already dismissed Nixon as among the worst presidents ever, the news about his delight in ketchup before noon would have put me over the top.

But I rather like it that Richard Nixon’s cottage-cheese-and-ketch­up habit has helped cement his place in history. The meal, to me, seems to reveal something about his character: an impulse toward parsimony (the frugal and diet-friendly cottage cheese) — but eaten, as a child would, only with a lashing of infantile sauce (ketchup) to mask the taste. A dishonest dish.

The official Nixon library says President Nixon also liked a breakfast of fresh fruit, wheat germ, and yogurt, “which was flown in from California every day.” Can you imagine the presidential airplane ferrying his precious yogurt to Washington every day? Somehow I doubt this yogurt-flying really happened on a regular basis; I suspect the yogurt story was publicized to counterbalance the shivers of horror that ran down the spine of Americans when we learned of the ketchup-and-cottage-cheese thing.

And does anyone remember “ketch­upgate”? We all knew ketchup couldn’t legitimately be called a vegetable back in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan’s Department of Agriculture pushed for it to be categorized as such for the purpose of school-lunch standards. Ketchup-as-a-vegetable became headline news because it, too, seemed to reveal something about the Reagan mind-set.

Ketchup, which was more commonly spelled catsup 100 years ago, has murky origins. Some say it began as a pickled fish sauce that Westerners came upon in China in the 17th century. Other sources say it was a mix of shellfish, herbs, and spices of Indonesian origin that became popular in this country in the early 1800s. In any event, a catsup-y tomato and herb sauce was mentioned in a Jonathon Swift poem in 1730, and catsup was being mass-produced by Heinz by 1876.

The most popular ketchup in America is Heinz 57. I bet there is a bottle of it in your refrigerator right now. I have one in mine.

I started thinking about our national sauce this week when I read the news in The New York Times that the recently merged company of Kraft Heinz is in deep trouble: “mega-merger is a mega-mess” is how the reporter put it. The mammoth Kraft Heinz company — which owns not just the ketchup business but Kraft cheese products and Oscar Mayer hot dogs and bologna — had revenues of $28 billion at the time of the 2015 merger, but its earnings have slumped dramatically in the last four years and its valuation has also slumped.

It is not clear whether the ill fortunes of Kraft Heinz have something to do with people’s growing taste for fresh and organic and locally sourced foods, but I like to think so.

President Trump, like Nixon, is a ketchup man, by the way. He is said to slather it on not just his burgers but

his well-done steaks. An international mega-corporation like Kraft Heinz is a very Trumpian organization, it seems to me, and in 2015 the outlook for Trump and Kraft Heinz was rosy. But maybe, just maybe, tastes are changing.