I have wandered the seven seas in my checkered career, much like Sinbad, only to find that what I started out with is what I always wanted. Like Dorothy’s drab Kansas farmstead or Russell H. Conwell’s acres of backyard wealth, my real solace always lay close at hand . . . in a bottle of ketchup.
I felt underprivileged in the kitchen as a child. We were strictly a salt and pepper, ketchup and mustard, family. Even a bottle of barbeque sauce was considered risqué by my mother, who never ventured past Velveeta cheese in her casseroles and omelets. My pals had bagels and sauerkraut and chili to eat, while even Chef Boyardee was considered persona non grata with my parents. I grew to resent this blind worship of the bland, and finally left home after high school determined to savor all the exotic cuisine I could lay my utensils on.
This was an easy task, since when I left home I traveled with the circus all across the U.S. and Canada. I sampled perogies and Chicago pizza, beignets and burritos, gazpacho and poutine – and always there would be several different kinds of heavily spiced and rich sauces at my side. I dipped and scooped like a madman – or, truth be told, like a glutton. I wallowed in Hollandaise sauce and wasted my largesse like a drunken mariner on peppered concoctions that had me sweating worse than Nixon. Fish sauce, oyster sauce, anchovy paste, rice vinegar, sesame oil, Angostura Bitters . . . the list is long, and, ultimately, futile. My palate, born and bred to be undiscriminating, found in everything, from tamarind paste to Mediterranean capers, nothing but the repetition of salt, sugar, and sour. Subtle distinctions in flavor evaded me.
As did the Prodigal Son, I finally came to my senses, and realized that plain food is my kind of food. And ketchup is all the window dressing I’ll ever want.
So today when I sit down to chow, it is likely to be a hamburger, with French fries on the side. And close by will be those old companions that I had renounced in my callow youth and now embrace with unreasoning fervor – ketchup and mustard. And not any of that fancy-schmansy Dijon or Grey Poupon stuff, but good ol’ plain bright yellow French’s. Oh, how comforting is the feel and heft of a glass bottle of Heinz, as clunky and awkward as a Gary Cooper movie hero, and just as dependable! To insert a butter knife into the mouth of a Heinz bottle to encourage that unpredictable trickle is one of the rites of American cuisine. That sweet tang is all I ask out of life anymore, when I am at the dinner table. I’ve come back home, America, to your ever-lovin’ tater tot casserole with a piece of RITZ mock apple pie for dessert. I’ll never leave the mustard and ketchup behind again.
I say to one and all: My condiments – right or wrong!