Snakes and Rats

June 2004

It was not until I moved into a house near a ketchup factory that I first perceived the all-encompassing, smothering embrace of our national vegetable. When the night was still, a cool inversion keeping the air low to the moist floor of the Central Valley, the aroma would blanket the town. Sweet stewing tomatoes.

We could walk from our house up to the ketchup factory fence. Through the chain link, we could see the trucks roll in and up a ramp. There, they were grabbed by a sort of harness, and the entire truckbed would be lifted and dumped—tons of bouncing red balls rolling into the maw of a stainless steel industrial facility.

Every summer, the highways of the Central Valley grow treacherous with legions of barely qualified tweakers hauling billions of the red orbs to and fro across the dreamily flat expanse of California’s own Midwest. A friend of mine drove one of those trucks. He had gotten his drivers’ license just so he could take this summer job, the last refuge of burnouts and sociopaths from across the state. Not yet so far gone that they were unemployable, their trajectory is nonetheless little better than that of the snakes and rats who get pulled up along with the tomatoes. Often missed by the harrowed and exhausted illegal aliens inside the Dr. Seuss harvesting machines, these frantically wriggling vermin could be seen tumbling among the tomatoes as they disappeared into the processing plant.

Though they’re not listed in the ingredients, snakes and rats are no less esoteric than the sorts of things that were once considered key ketchup ingredients: Cockles, peaches, liver, squash, lobster, elderberries, and stale beer were once considered ideal makings. Ketchup was the all-purpose mystery sauce; the hodgepodge that could absorb anything.

In the seventeenth century, while Great Britain was extending its domain over the realms of fish sauce and soy sauce, ketchup entered British cuisine. From obscure antecedents—probably from the Malay kecap, meaning sauce, which in turn may be derived from the Amoy kê-tsiap, which refers to the brine of pickled fish—the newly-English word quickly came to encompass sauces made from all manner of ingredients.

Ketchups of walnuts, mushrooms, and fish—especially fish, still with us today in the form of Worcestershire sauce—became the most widespread in Britain and remained so until World War II, when the American invasion began in earnest. (Mushroom ketchup still haunts Sainsbury’s website, although it takes a back seat to the red-blooded American variety.)

Tomatoes, of course, are a New World crop. They were unknown to the cuisines of Italy, Spain, India, and the rest until European conquerors encountered them in Central America. In keeping with the American penchant for the spontaneous creation of syncretic culture from disparate elements of dubious provenance, the spoils of conquest from Worlds New and Old were combined, then fully appropriated, in tomato ketchup. The first tomato ketchup recipe was published in the States in 1812. By the 1870s, tomato ketchup was, by acclimation from visitor and domestic wag alike, America’s national sauce.

But ketchup, like methamphetamines, was ubiquitous long before it was recognized as a staple of the national diet. The frosty edge on all of life in the Central Valley, speed is genuinely necessary for the tomato truck drivers. The blistering heat, eighteen-hour days, and hypnotically linear Valley byways see to it that any unimproved human would quickly pitch a load of tomatoes—and a double-trailer truck—into a walnut grove. As it is, come summer, every off-ramp in the Valley is lined with a corvine smorgasbord of disturbingly whole tomatoes. They’re bred not to rupture when they are handled by machines. The sight of yet another one bouncing down the interstate unhurt at eighty miles an hour does give drivers pause, but only long enough for the thing to skitter to the shoulder and out of view.

* * *

Ketchup is omnipresent and therefore invisible. At any moment, 97% of American households are stocked with at least one of the 840 million bottles of ketchup manufactured each year. It’s so universal that its gaudy red depths are resistant to consideration.

But it was not always so. The audience for that first tomato ketchup recipe was composed of home cooks. As a homemade condiment, ketchup was a way of storing your cucumbers or mussels or tomatoes in a savory concoction you could use all winter long to flavor gravies, thicken soups, and glaze meats. But as with so much of the American diet—indeed American consumer culture—the nineteenth century saw a great transformation from homespun to storebought. Everything that had once been made at home—coffee, beer, bread, butter, and sausage—could be produced more uniformly and cheaply by enterprising companies. The foundations for today’s consumer landscape were laid then by corporations like Folgers, Ivory, Wrigley’s, Kellog and, of course, Heinz.

But even in 1906, thirty years after mass-produced tomato ketchup had been declared the national sauce, one-sixth of American households still prepared their own. And the formulas used by the commercial brands, but for the addition of various noxious preservatives and colorings, were based on home recipes. In the first years of the twentieth century, Heinz even acquired a Pennsylvania housewife’s recipe upon discovering it was far superior to their own.

Later that century, as with all consumer products, ketchup manufacture was further refined. By the 1950s, ketchup was no longer made from ripe tomatoes, but from tomato concentrate. High fructose corn syrup was subbed in for sugar. Onion powder and “natural flavors” made their appearance. The stainless steel bowels of the ketchup factories conjured an elaborate simulacrum of the wholesome national sauce. A product of the autonomous kitchen had been seized and sold back to us by industry.

The hyperabstraction of food in the twentieth century, accompanied by ever-increasing scales of production, was made possible by advertising. Late in the previous century, a few companies—the ones that, as “brands,” are still with us today—had discovered the power of national advertising to sell product. In sector after sector, these names grew to dominate their markets. By the 1960s, Heinz sold half of the ketchup in America, and its distinctive bottle, sanguine hue, and blandly sweet flavor became the idealized and prototypical form of the American sauce. Along with the similarly cardinal Coca-Cola and Marlboro, Heinz became America’s standard.

Virtually all Americans alive today grew up sucking at that blood-red teat. Heinz ketchup manages to be at once familiar and comforting while being unabashedly mass produced. It hit that sweet spot where, though obviously commercial, it is somehow a plausible part of everyone’s home cooking. But lately we’ve been getting glimpses of the man behind the curtain.

* * *

Purple ketchup. Green ketchup. Close your eyes and do the taste test, and you’ll find to your horror that you can’t taste color. To a generation of kids who have not been given the comforting illusion that food has anything to do with natural fruits of the earth, these colors are fun and appetizing and no more incongruous than the crimson standard. For their parents, whose archaic sense of the wholesome may raise doubts, these “squeezers”—plastic bottles that disgorge the psychedelic condiments—are fortified with the fig leaf of vitamin C: 100% US RDA; more salubrious even than the red variety.

The essence of ketchup has been pared to the bare bones of the Food and Drug Administration’s definition: a uniform sauce that, when tested using a device called a Bostwick Consistometer at the cool but lab-coat-appropriate temperature of twenty degrees centigrade, flows no farther than fourteen centimeters within thirty seconds. (Affectionately known simply as “the Bostwick,” this contraption looks like a wah-wah pedal and is used to measure the viscosity of shampoo, paint, salad dressing, and any other gloopy product you might find in your home.)

Shorn of any connection to the vegetable kingdom, ketchup has dropped the pretense, and for this it is to be celebrated. Purple ketchup might as well be made from pumpkins or grapes (both old-time ketchup ingredients) or from some kind of petroleum distillate. As it is, the “tomatoes” in it are so warped and mishandled that, were they to undergo the same treatment in your kitchen you’d throw them out in a heartbeat without ever reaching for the Bostwick. Slathering a hot dog with teal ketchup is a tacit acknowledgment of the realities of the food system as a compact between corporation and consumer that brings pleasure and profit right out in the open. You get the instant gratification of a “fun” food and they get the profitability of a mass market product with ingredients that cost next to nothing. Everyone’s happy and all is right with the world.

For that market segment horrified by this new frankness in the national condiment there is instead organic ketchup. Grown without artificial pesticides and fertilizer: Organic tomatoes. Nothing is more evocative of wholesomeness and naturalness than organic, now certified by the Federal Government. Heinz’s version of the sweet and succulent concoction even comes with a label limned in a righteous yellow-green the color of unsullied leaves in the late afternoon sun.

It is a testament to the unquestioned primacy of ketchup in our culture that organic ketchup is the meeting ground between the newly-commodified organic movement and the old-school food system. The very idea of organic ketchup suggests that, while this condiment may no longer admit diverse ingredients, it has an endless capacity to absorb diverse ideas, but on its own terms.

The organic tomatoes that end up in Heinz Organic Ketchup are grown in the Central Valley (it’s no accident that Sacramento, also full of snakes and rats, is known as the Big Tomato), then trucked to Leamington, Ontario. There, they are melted down, crushed and cooked with Caribbean allspice. (Ketchup is the world’s single largest use of allspice, and the vicissitudes of its consumption wreak havoc on villages in Jamaica and Guatemala.) After bottling, the tomatoes are shipped back to, in my case, California.

I grew up in the vicinity of Leamington, so I like to think that Heinz Organic Ketchup has been imparted with some kind of homeland mojo that fortifies me whenever I decant it onto my organic fries. But still, it’s a long way to take a tomato, tough as its skin may be, just to make a paintlike sauce.

* * *

Ketchup is a symbol all right—it’s the flagrant emblem of control and dependence. Borrowed gratefully by cultures not blessed with the best cuisine, embraced by home cooks as an artful exigency, ketchup’s appropriation and homogenization by commercial interests is an emblem of our loss of control as we have gone from citizens to consumers. Will ketchup control you, or will you control ketchup?

In that vein, for those of you who, like I, enjoy the wantonly sexual feel of ketchup oozing out of a bun and off your lip, yet who cannot reconcile delusion any longer, I offer a recipe for homemade ketchup adapted from Florida chef Steven Raichlen. Toward the end of his time as a tomato truck driver, I gave a taste of this stuff to my tomato-truck-driving friend. He loved it, and soon started the long climb back to respectability: he quit his job and moved to LA to become a pornographer. Such is the transformative power of taking control of your own ketchup.

Now’s your last chance. Get off the ketchup grid. I warn you, though, it is brown. Brown is the color of nature and authenticity.

Heat one-and-a-half tablespoons of olive oil in a large saucepan. Add a chopped onion, three cloves of minced garlic, three chopped stalks of celery, and a cored, seeded, and chopped red bell pepper. Cook until the vegetables are soft but not brown. The brown comes later.

While this is happening, peel and seed three pounds of fresh ripe tomatoes. If you don’t know how, ask your great aunt or, alternatively, the internet.

When the things in the saucepan are ready, toss in the tomatoes and their liquid.

Then, add half a cup of brown sugar, half a cup of cider vinegar, two tablespoons of tomato paste, two teaspoons of hot sauce of your choice (I like to use a simple red pepper and vinegar sauce I make from the chile arbol in the back yard), a tablespoon of Dijon mustard (this is the kind of transgression you can wallow in when you take back control), a bay leaf, a teaspoon each of celery seeds and ground coriander, a half teaspoon of allspice and a quarter teaspoon of cloves.

Bring it all to a boil and simmer covered for an hour, stirring every once in a while. Purée this concoction until you recognize it as ketchup.

Add snakes, rats, food coloring, preservatives, and vitamin C to taste.

Bottle and refrigerate.

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