Friday, 16 May 2008

best of net: THE KETCHUP CONUNDRUM

The third entrant in my distinguished "best of net" series comes from Malcolm Gladwell. As always, you should read the whole thing. I'm not quoting nearly as much from this one as I have in past "best of net" entrants.

Once you get past the question of what to call sliced and fried potatoes (French Fries? Chips? Freedom Fries?) comes the more difficult question: what to put on them. Salt? Vinegar? Lime? Tabasco? Gravy? Cheese? Mayonnaise? Or how about the obvious choice: ketchup?
Today there are thirty-six varieties of RagĂș spaghetti sauce, under six rubrics—Old World Style, Chunky Garden Style, Robusto, Light, Cheese Creations, and Rich & Meaty—which means that there is very nearly an optimal spaghetti sauce for every man, woman, and child in America.
There is one ketchup.
It was a conundrum: what was true about a yellow condiment that went on hot dogs was not true about a tomato condiment that went on hamburgers, and what was true about tomato sauce when you added visible solids and put it in a jar was somehow not true about tomato sauce when you added vinegar and sugar and put it in a bottle. Moskowitz shrugged. "I guess ketchup is ketchup."
Gladwell is a storyteller, and this is the story of Grey Poupon, Heinz, and Ragu. Heady stuff.
Tomato ketchup is a nineteenth-century creation—the union of the English tradition of fruit and vegetable sauces and the growing American infatuation with the tomato. But what we know today as ketchup emerged out of a debate that raged in the first years of the last century over benzoate, a preservative widely used in late-nineteenth-century condiments. Harvey Washington Wiley, the chief of the Bureau of Chemistry in the Department of Agriculture from 1883 to 1912, came to believe that benzoates were not safe, and the result was an argument that split the ketchup world in half. On one side was the ketchup establishment, which believed that it was impossible to make ketchup without benzoate and that benzoate was not harmful in the amounts used. On the other side was a renegade band of ketchup manufacturers, who believed that the preservative puzzle could be solved with the application of culinary science. The dominant nineteenth-century ketchups were thin and watery, in part because they were made from unripe tomatoes, which are low in the complex carbohydrates known as pectin, which add body to a sauce. But what if you made ketchup from ripe tomatoes, giving it the density it needed to resist degradation? Nineteenth-century ketchups had a strong tomato taste, with just a light vinegar touch. The renegades argued that by greatly increasing the amount of vinegar, in effect protecting the tomatoes by pickling them, they were making a superior ketchup: safer, purer, and better tasting. They offered a money-back guarantee in the event of spoilage. They charged more for their product, convinced that the public would pay more for a better ketchup, and they were right. The benzoate ketchups disappeared. The leader of the renegade band was an entrepreneur out of Pittsburgh named Henry J. Heinz.
and later,
There are five known fundamental tastes in the human palate: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. Umami is the proteiny, full-bodied taste of chicken soup, or cured meat, or fish stock, or aged cheese, or mother's milk, or soy sauce, or mushrooms, or seaweed, or cooked tomato. "Umami adds body," Gary Beauchamp, who heads the Monell Chemical Senses Center, in Philadelphia, says. "If you add it to a soup, it makes the soup seem like it's thicker—it gives it sensory heft. It turns a soup from salt water into a food." When Heinz moved to ripe tomatoes and increased the percentage of tomato solids, he made ketchup, first and foremost, a potent source of umami. Then he dramatically increased the concentration of vinegar, so that his ketchup had twice the acidity of most other ketchups; now ketchup was sour, another of the fundamental tastes. The post-benzoate ketchups also doubled the concentration of sugar—so now ketchup was also sweet—and all along ketchup had been salty and bitter. These are not trivial issues. Give a baby soup, and then soup with MSG (an amino-acid salt that is pure umami), and the baby will go back for the MSG soup every time, the same way a baby will always prefer water with sugar to water alone. Salt and sugar and umami are primal signals about the food we are eating—about how dense it is in calories, for example, or, in the case of umami, about the presence of proteins and amino acids. What Heinz had done was come up with a condiment that pushed all five of these primal buttons. The taste of Heinz's ketchup began at the tip of the tongue, where our receptors for sweet and salty first appear, moved along the sides, where sour notes seem the strongest, then hit the back of the tongue, for umami and bitter, in one long crescendo. How many things in the supermarket run the sensory spectrum like this?
Not many, it would seem. Read it!

5 comments:

Zachary Miner said...

Interesting that ketchup is supposed to be the dominant awesomeness when it comes to condiments, and yet it is still gross. How can that be?

Actually, I'll answer my own question: vinegar. I find vinegar to be among the most vile substances ever, at least among those which are made out to be edible. It's fine when used to create a chemical reaction in baking, because the flavor never makes it through, but a mere whiff of the stuff makes me shudder.

Story Time: When I was in first grade, a friend was eating chips at snack time and he offered me one. Having only ever had regular awesome chips, I assumed that his were similar. Unfortunately for me, his parents were sadistic jerks and had bought him salt and vinegar chips, and I almost gagged when I bit into it. To this day, I have never eaten another salt and vinegar chip ... that's how bad this was.

Back on topic, does anyone remember the ketchup flavored chips that used to be sold? I remember watching advertisements for them on TV and being horrified at the thought.

Isaac said...

You are clearly mistaken. Salt and vinegar chips are amazingly delicious. When I open a fresh bag, I always make the mistake of inhaling just as I place one in my mouth, however, and suffer a coughing fit as the noxious fumes attack my lungs. I don't recall seeing ketchup-flavored chips back home, but they are readily available in Canada.

I've found an interesting tendency within myself when reading Gladwell's writing. His ideas are usually so cool that I want them to be true.

Virtually everyone I've told of this ketchup bit has had a reaction in some way similar to your own. Possibly it is a generalized disorder among grad students, but it seems no one I know will admit to liking ketchup.

My own tortured relationship with the substance began when I was thirteen and reading a volume of The Hardy Boy's Casefiles in which the evildoer was a French chef who despised Americans who doused their food with ketchup. I came to associate ketchup with other vulgar things: country fairs, fried food, rednecks, and general stores.

Later, I realized that these comprise the enjoyable parts of life. There is nothing more satisfying than heading down to the country fair for a cardboard plate of fries doused in vinegar and salted into submission.

Zachary Miner said...

I think we will have to agree to disagree on this point. Or, perhaps more efficiently, we could each agree that the other is insane. That might solve more problems in the long run.

I have the same problem you do with accidental food inhalation, but mine takes place whenever I eat chicken wings (which, thankfully, is pretty seldom). Aspirating hot-wing sauce is no fun, and it is invariably compounded by the fact that one's hands are caked with chicken ickness from tightly holding onto a slippery sauce-covered ball of grease.

>I don't recall seeing ketchup-flavored chips back home

This was a long time ago - I think they were Humpty Dumpty brand. I just remember that the commercial featured a little kid who put ketchup on everything, and who was therefore overjoyed to find a product which catered to his needs.

>it seems no one I know will admit to liking ketchup.

You're assuming that people really *do* like it, and just won't agree that they do. Occam's Razor tells us that it's simpler to posit that people actually don't like ketchup. But, I think we can both agree that the more interesting question is why people do or do not like it.

I'm sure there's a sociological paper somewhere in the fact that people both hate and love those things they associate with the lower classes. Perhaps the most widely observable example of this phenomena is the popularity of rap music, which is typically associated with members of a marginalized ethnic group. But I'm sure food has a place in this argument too.

Hell, even the Barenaked Ladies joke about how, when they have a million dollars, they'll buy only the expensive Dijon ketchups. Is this self-conscious poverty talking, or is it an ironic middle-class longing for the lower class?

Isaac said...

I agree that you are insane.

Wing hot sauce usually has vinegar in it, so it's no surprise they have the same effect as salt and vinegar chips (or that you seldom consume them). On the plus side, hot wings have the added quality of physical heat, so you run the risk of scalding your throat with steam at the same time your lungs try to escape the vinegar fumes by leaping through your nostrils. Must be why they are one of my favourite foods.

> I'm sure there's a sociological paper somewhere in the fact that people both hate and love those things they associate with the lower classes.

Plus, I think a presidential race is about to be decided on this opposition.

> the Barenaked Ladies joke about how, when they have a million dollars, they'll buy only the expensive Dijon ketchups.

That's a typical mistake of the nouveau riche: retaining the middle-class value of conspicuous consumption. Only the rich and poor ignore such foolishness. Dijon ketchups aren't very good, so there is no point in having them. If there is a part of Gladwell's argument I accept, it is that whether you like ketchup or not, if what you want is ketchup, there's really only one.

Anonymous said...

To the one who said the question is why or why they don't like them - Who cares? Seriously. I like ketchup chips and salt and vinegar chips. They're both amazing.

When I was a kid I went to 'Kernels' popcorn and asked them to put both ketchup and salt and vinegar flavoured popcorn in one bag, instead of me buying 2 seperate bags, asking for a third one and mixing it myself. They happily agreed to mix it for me. the girl who did tried it, and said it was pretty good. a couple months later a new flavour called 'Sting me' was out. I asked them what it was and they said salt and vinegar and ketchup.

as crazy as the idea sounds, someone made money off it.

And I still use this combination at the movies. I also enjoy raw lemons. I love (some) intense flavours