Often there is a centerpiece on our kitchen table.
It’s somewhat tall, at least taller than the salt and pepper containers. It’s not flowery or decorative. It is usually made of plastic, but sometimes of glass, with brilliant red contents that bring flavor and joy to so many of us. Sometimes, especially when it is freshly opened, it needs a good firm shake to release its essence.
It is a bottle of ketchup, and in a home of Jews it is specifically Heinz ketchup. I suppose I could live without it, but it would be challenging. Life without ketchup still would be life, but akin to life without spices or water or telephones or electricity. It would be missing something basic and urgent and fundamental.
Ketchup is not a fruit or a vegetable, although, through the years, the U.S. government has toyed with calling it either one, especially when considering regulations for school lunches. But ketchup is a star! Of course!
Ketchup conceals bad tastes and enhances good taste. It’s sort of umami, minus the mystique. It’s ubiquitous. I can’t think of a single country I’ve visited where there is no ketchup. Certainly I am not alone as a big fan. Consider this a tribute to that great neutralizer, a condiment that brings together rich and poor, refined and coarse, educated and uneducated, old and young, and can be consumed anywhere. The finest restaurants will have a container stashed away. The more common places will have it on every table.
And, fellow Jews, it’s kosher!
I admit I’m an obsessive when it comes to food. Why else would I have, in days long past, in preparation for a lengthy stay in our holiest land, packed entire suitcases with frozen bagels? In those days Israeli bagels were really deplorable, if and when they existed at all. They’re a tad, but only a tad, better now, but these days I resist the schlepping since I’m now an old lady married to an even older man, and schlepping bagels is truly embarrassingly tedious, heavy, and self-indulgent. And to be honest, now Israel is providing us with such remarkable loaves of bread at places like Tomer’s in Jerusalem’s Arnona and Talpiot; bakeries whose breads are so beyond-belief delicious that I dream of them! No American bread, even the finest bagels, can compare. How can anything possibly taste so good and be so perfect? Even I, the consummate bagel maven, will charge forward for Tomer’s, leaving bagels in the dust!
Today, however, at the urging of a reader, is dedicated to ketchup, my favorite condiment.
Although I possibly could manage without mustard, mayo, sweet relish, or vinegar, I would profoundly miss ketchup if it were suddenly scooped off the market. I won’t go so far as to say a life without ketchup is a life not worth living. Maybe that’s too dramatic. But I am an addict! I pour ketchup onto just about any meat, including the finest steaks (which I admit I eat rarely; can any of us justify gambling on a $40 piece of meat at a local kosher butcher, and finding it tough and tasteless?).
Last week we ate a celebratory meal out at a kosher restaurant in Manhattan and the steak cost a mere $98. If you wanted a side of a vegetable or potato, or even a bit of salad, fork up at least another $20. Thus, at such prices, I will stick to chicken or hamburgers to go with my ketchup. But the upshot was that the meat, for almost $100, was merely mediocre, with or without the potatoes, although the ketchup helped somewhat.
To make matters worse there’s the contemptuous glance from the waiter at a fancy place when you meekly request ketchup; definitely sneering, as he’s thinking, “Who is this unsophisticated, fat old lady who has no savoir faire and asks for ketchup to accompany such a magnificent chef-cooked piece of dead cow?” (I know it’s a steer but cow sounds better.) And, anyway, thinking about it grazing on a lush farm, peacefully chewing its cud, and then its transition to the slaughterhouse could make me a vegetarian. But, strangely, it doesn’t work that way. I eat and don’t think! And ketchup makes meat taste better. It’s as simple as that, the snobby waiter notwithstanding.
Now let me clarify. In America ketchup is synonymous with Heinz, especially for Jews. In all my years of eating ketchup, and never being caught without it, I have never bought any other brand. It would be unheard of. Period. My mother used Heinz exclusively, and so does every Jew I know. It’s heresy to use another brand, sort of like Hellman’s mayo. Could you make your tuna salad without it?
But this is not the case in Israel. They now sell Heinz ketchup in the supermarkets, if not the makolets. Of course it’s way more expensive there than it is here, but people are buying it. Ketchup snobbery anyone? Doubtful, though, that you’ll find it at a steakiya restaurant where most of them offer you those slippery little single serve packages that take so much time to tear and squeeze to get a teaspoon’s worth that it’s maddening and frustrating. My own secret, which I share with you from one friend to another, is to ask the waiter for a pile of those tiny little annoyances in advance of the meal, and with my husband as co-conspirator, open a slew (that’s a lot!) of them so when the pargiot arrive, I’m set and ready to merely squeeze out the ketchup. Sneaky, eh?
For some strange reason Israeli ketchup doesn’t bother me. It’s sweeter than Heinz. Very flavorful. I actually like it and never buy Heinz there. It seems less authentic. I do like to buy Israeli products here in New Jersey though. My cabinets are always stocked with Elite instant coffee and assorted soup mandlen and spices, all from my local stores. I’m happy that ShopRite sells fresh carrots from a nice kibbutz called Dorot in the Northern Negev. Such easy ways to support Israel and eat quality products as well.
I am one of those people who it’s safe to ask if I’m eating a hamburger with ketchup or ketchup with a hamburger. Or to put it another way, could I even imagine eating a hamburger without ketchup? The answer is no, never! But, equally important, is that ketchup is a terrific cooking ingredient. My mom’s meatballs were ketchup laden, as are my own. Blended with other ingredients, ketchup is a ubiquitous addition to many dishes, meat or pareve. We love thousand island dressing, which we Jews call Russian and slather on our authentic sloppy joes, those mouthwatering combinations of meat, cole slaw, and Russian dressing on fresh rye. My friend Ruth mixes it with horseradish for cocktail dressing to serve on her fake crabmeat. Yum. Mix it with mustard and a drop of pure maple syrup for an amazing marinade for chicken or beef. Or put a bit into your soup for unexpected flavor. Many people like it spread onto pizza. In Canada there’s a creation called ketchup cake. Really, I’d rather not!
It’s not an exaggeration to say ketchup can be used in infinite ways. Try some.
B’tayavon! Bon appetit!
Are you a ketchup addict too? I can be reached at email@example.com.
Rosanne Skopp of West Orange is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of three. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. She is a lifelong blogger, writing blogs before anyone knew what a blog was!