Sunday, May 31, 2009

Ketchup and Vinegar

Sue buys me a subscription to Gourmet Magazine every year. I think it’s an example of how truly good she is to me, but she is always quick to remind me that her own self-interests are at play, too.

And sure, I do get a lot of great recipes and ideas from the magazine (like this keeper: Finnan Haddie Gratin), but I have to admit that the writing and feature articles almost always appeal to me as well as the photography and design. I find myself thinking about the stories and topics long after I’ve read them. I think that’s the first sign of excellence in essay writing—you keep thinking about it long after you’ve read it.

Sure, I can find good things to read all over the place, and I can find all the recipes in the world (-wide-Web) on the Internet. But Gourmet serves it all up to me each month in one sweet package. The way a great chef creates a menu that is nutritious, visually beautiful, with harmonized flavors and balanced textures, Ruth Reichl and her staff really do a wonderful job in putting together a satisfying publication.

So with that little introduction—now that you know I’m an avid Gourmet reader—I want to talk to you about ketchup, in part because Gourmet itself brought it up this month (June 2009, page 11). There’s also a Web page about it.

Now, ketchup is an Opulent Opossum topic for sure, because it’s utterly common, it’s undersung, it’s great (come on, it is—read the online article above) . . . and it’s made with vinegar.

Yes, I keep running into vinegar in my recipes—the old-timey ones, the German-heritage ones. Vinegar used to be a necessary cooking ingredient because of its preservative values as well as its ability to add what people used to call “zip.”

Zip! Remember that term? If you’re old enough, you can remember the days in the Midwest before Taco Bell came to town and people started using chili peppers to add pizzazz to their foods. We used to add vinegar and pickles to things to give them a culinary thrill. Ketchup is a member of that tribe—one member that has endured, along with cucumber pickles of various types. (Look at your fast-food hamburger.)

I mean, think about it: the same company makes America’s number-one ketchup as well as the most popular vinegars. When I go to buy ketchup or my apple cider vinegar, I always get Heinz. Chances are, you do, too.

Ketchups were a way of preserving the bounty of the summer garden during the drab winter months. We still laugh at Ronald Reagan’s declaring ketchup a “vegetable,” but when you think about it, despite the added sugars in processed ketchups, at heart ketchup is cooked, strained, pickled, canned tomatoes—the richness of a summer garden preserved in glass bottles. Can’t blame ol’ Reagan for thinking in nineteenth-century terms, as he was such a relic himself. (Sorry, I couldn’t stand him. His head-in-the-sand AIDS policy was the kicker for me. But I digress.)

Sue made an interesting observation once: French fries are good by themselves, but once you’ve started dipping them in ketchup, you can’t go back to eating them just plain. You have to keep dipping them in ketchup until they’re gone.

So it was with interest that I read Adam Brent Houghtaling’s Web post on the Gourmet site, introduced in the magazine thus: “Could the future of ketchup be in its past? Our archives are filled with apple, grape, and mushroom versions. Get the recipes and find out how the country’s best chefs are using this ubiquitous sauce at”

What I find most intriguing is how one type of ketchup—tomato; Heinz—has come to be ubiquitous, while there were so many different types of ketchup adding zip to the nation’s dishes in the 1800s: Grape ketchup? Mushroom ketchup? . . . Walnut ketchup? How fascinating.

I’ll stop for now with this post, but I encourage you to look at Houghtaling’s essay and reflect a bit on how our forebears in the kitchen relied on vinegar as a necessary cooking item (and not just for salad dressings), and how their families grooved on the zippiness of so many pickled and ketchupped concoctions.

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