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July 13, 2005

Ketchup Experimentation

I recently re-read an essay by Malcolm Gladwell, one of my favorite non-fiction authors. The essay in question is The Ketchup Conundrum. In it, Gladwell explores why there are several successful variations on the theme of mustard, but the standard model for ketchup, Heinz, reigns supreme. I don't think he really answered the question, what makes mustard different, to my satisfaction. But his explanation for ketchup makes at least superficial sense. Ketchup (and here I mean the mainstream variety we generally think of when we hear the word) has nearly equal parts of each of the five basic flavor notes: salt, bitter, sweet, sour and umami (protein). In addition the Heinz formulation carefully blends these notes, so that no one stands out so much higher than the others that we can instantly recall it -- and grow tired of it.

Does this mean that specialty ketchups are inferior to mainstream ketchup? As a condiment, perhaps. If you think of them as sauces, they stand on their own, like a spaghetti sauce. But since we almost exclusively think of ketchup in the condiment role, specialty ketchups labor under a handicap. In fact, when considered solely as an artisan food, some of these ketchups seem quite appetizing. Consider Gladwell's signal example, World's Real Ketchup:

[..] He starts with red peppers, Spanish onions, garlic, and a high-end tomato paste. Basil is chopped by hand, because the buffalo chopper bruises the leaves. He uses maple syrup, not corn syrup, which gives him a quarter of the sugar of Heinz. He pours his ketchup into a clear glass ten-ounce jar, and sells it for three times the price of Heinz, and for the past few years he has crisscrossed the country, peddling World's Best in six flavors--regular, sweet, dill, garlic, caramelized onion, and basil--to specialty grocery stores and supermarkets. [...] The ratio of tomato solids to liquid in World's Best is much higher than in Heinz, and the maple syrup gives it an unmistakable sweet kick.

I might not drop several bucks having a jar shipped to my doorstep, but it does make me want to try cobbling together an artisan ketchup myself! Since Gladwell mentions a renowned tomato historian who also has written books on tomato cooking, I looked him up at the library, and found Pure Ketchup: A History of America's National Condiment, with Recipes by Andrew F. Smith. So look for my experiments in the near future!

Posted by dpwakefield at July 13, 2005 09:54 PM