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Heaven in a ketchup bottle

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Esther Cepeda
October 31, 2011
— I love ketchup so much that on my first trip to Europe, I checked a bottle into my luggage so I could have my Heinz available to accompany the many fish-n-chips meals I planned to devour in England, Scotland and Ireland.

As a Chicagoan who has sustained a lifetime of ridicule for eating hotdogs plain—except for a taboo ribbon of ketchup—I’ve clung to my faith in ketchup to make fries, and anything on a bun, heavenly.

Never mind trendy foodie treasures such those insufferably fussy cupcakes you see everywhere these days, I’m passionate about my ketchup.

Maybe it’s the natural mellowing agents that the fake Ketchup Advisory Board is always going on about during Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” public-service announcement parody. If you’ve heard the plaintive, longing vocalization of that precious word “ketch-up … ketch-up” in the jingle, you’d be hard pressed to disagree that ketchup is, indeed, for “the good times.”

All that said, I have a love-hate relationship with Heinz because the company tends to mess with my brand.

Not long after I toured Britain, sampling the slightly sweeter variations of Heinz’s European versions, I came home to learn that Heinz was cutting the salt in the regular American blend.

Then came the move from high-fructose corn syrup to cane sugar, for an added air of healthiness I suppose, though ironically the “real sugar” version carries a higher sodium content than the regular, as does their “organic” blend.

Now, if you really watch your sodium, you probably shouldn’t be eating the sorts of foods that demand a ketchup sidecar, but Heinz does offer a no-salt variation, which, much like their recently added “hot and spicy flavor,” will never pass my lips. I didn’t try the kid-friendly multicolored versions they offered a few years ago, either.

In a 2004 New Yorker article about why upmarket ketchup would never catch on, Malcolm Gladwell quoted food theorist Elizabeth Rozin, who said that ketchup may well be “the only true culinary expression of the melting pot, and .., its special and unprecedented ability to provide something for everyone makes it the Esperanto of cuisine.”

Exactly.

Heinz will soon roll out a balsamic vinegar blend, which experimentally minded devotees are expected to order exclusively through the Heinz Facebook page. The rest of us will see bottles on store shelves at the end of December, and sales there will determine whether the new variation will stay.

Though it does have a classy, black-label look, I can’t imagine buying one. Call me provincial, a traditionalist or just plain stubborn, but I’m not interested in any fancy-schmancy ketchup.

Heinz’s perfection was achieved long ago: It is simple, classic, sweet all-American ketchup. I will cling to it like the regular blend clings to its iconic glass bottle.

Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.


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