Seeing Red: When It Comes To Ketchup There’s No Contest

Ketchup bottle“Anticipation. Anticipation. You’re making me wait. Keeping me waiting.” Anticipation by Carly Simon.

Back in the day–before plastic squeeze bottles with wide plastic tops let gravity do its work–coaxing ketchup from the bottle took patience, elbow grease, and courage. You never knew whether your insistent slapping of the bottom would propel the rich tomato red condiment–not quite a paste but hardly a sauce–strategically on the burger and fries as intended, or wildly on shirt and pants (the likelihood of misfiring being directly proportional to the amount of white being worn). And there was only one brand of ketchup worth risking that humiliation–Heinz Tomato Ketchup.

Recently, I heard about a new, hip restaurant boasting about its house-made ketchup. My reaction? Why bother? It can only lead to heightened expectations that are sure to be dashed when the homemade stuff just doesn’t measure up.

How could it?

To quote Carly Simon again: “Nobody does it better.” Heck, for years Heinz was really the only “ketchup.” Its main competitor in the tomato wars, Hunt’s, didn’t dare call its rival product ketchup, settling instead for the woefully weaker term “catsup.”

And let’s face it, if forced to choose between something with the sturdy, no-nonsense name “ketchup,” and the something else that made you sound like you spoke with a lisp, there really wasn’t much of choice at all. Not even Fred MacMurray and his three sons welcoming us to his home for Huntz could make buying catsup palatable

Last Sunday night, on “Mad Men,” the AMC drama about 1960s mores, morals, or lack thereof set in an advertising agency, leading man Don Draper and his team vie against his former protege, Peggy Olsen, for the lucrative Heinz ketchup account. It's a heavy weight bout waged in secret, because the Heinz guys are shopping for a new firm on the sly. Both Draper and Olsen create inventive presentations centered on the singularity of Heinz, the one true ketchup. A generic term so synonymous with its brand name that there is really no substitute, only disappointing also-rans. Today, salsa has supplanted ketchup as the best-selling condiment. But no watery tomato dip, whether spicy, medium, or mild, can ever replace Heinz ketchup as an iconic American condiment brand. Because Heinz=ketchup, and ketchup=Heinz. Everyone is else, from Hunt’s to Del Monte, has always been playing, well, catch-up.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “The fashion industry isn’t merely content to encase my meaty flanks in skintight denim. Oh, no! That denim also has to be white, a color that attracts ketchup, wine, garlic aioli, and any other foodstuffs I might otherwise be able to enjoy if I wasn’t wearing ridiculously tight pants.”
Diablo Cody

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