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How Ketchup Became the Official Condiment of Man-Children

Though 97 percent of Americans have ketchup in their fridge, it’s become synonymous with cloying juvenalia and rampant immaturity. Here’s its journey from refined topping to childish condiment

In February 2017, former President Donald Trump acted especially unpresidential. He publicly reprimanded Nordstrom for not carrying his daughter Ivanka Trump’s fashion line. He banned the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and several other media organizations from a White House press briefing. He threatened to implement a second travel ban to keep more immigrants out of America.

But what really angered people was when, on February 25th, Trump ate a well-done steak with a side of ketchup. A Jezebel headline published the next day summed up the public sentiment: “Donald Trump Eats His Steak Well Done With Ketchup, Like a Damn Child.”

While Trump is undeniably childish, this idea that ketchup is a condiment for kids and weaklings goes well beyond him. Former President Barack Obama and the late Anthony Bourdain have both come out against ketchup on wieners. There are many restaurants around the U.S. that stubbornly refuse to serve the tasty condiment. And, most tellingly, the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council website insists that a person should never “use ketchup on your hot dog after the age of 18.” 

This anti-ketchup consensus isn’t new. In 1995, the late Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko wrote, “No, I won’t condemn anyone for putting ketchup on a hot dog. This is the land of the free. Sure, it would be disgusting and perverted, and they would be shaming themselves and their loved ones. But under our system of government, it is their right to be barbarians.”

As one of those barbarians myself, I can’t help but wonder, what gives? How did ketchup, which is ubiquitous pretty much everywhere, become known as the obstinate manchild’s condiment? 

Well, there are a few factors at play… 

Fine Dining Killed Ketchup

Ketchup first emerged as a humble condiment out of Asia. It’s not entirely clear when, but some food scholars argue that certain versions may be more than two millennia old. Andrew Smith, author of Pure Ketchup: The History of America’s National Condiment, tells me it originated as a fish sauce, and it was added to a wide range of foods like rice, meat, and of course, seafood. (Until the dawn of tomato ketchup, the term “ketchup” referred to one ingredient that’s been spiced, whereas “sauce” indicated multiple ingredients in the same condiment.)

British colonists in Asia enjoyed the ketchup, so they replicated it back home. They also made their own ketchup from mushrooms, anchovies and other ingredients (you can still find non-tomato ketchups in specialty stores). Then, in the 18th century, they introduced ketchup to America.

In 1812, scientist and horticulturist James Mease published the first-known tomato ketchup recipe, which consisted of unstrained tomato pulp, spices and brandy, and it was a big hit. In fact, similar recipes appeared in a wide range of American cookbooks and periodicals during the 19th century, and ketchup became a quick way to perk up virtually any dish, from meatballs to scrambled eggs (some even believed ketchup was medicinal).

Then, in the 20th century, Americans came to regard French cooking as the epitome of fine dining, which was bad news for ketchup’s reputation. “Enjoying sauces appropriate to particular dishes became a mark of sophistication,” says food historian Ken Albala, who points to hollandaise, béarnaise and espagnole. “By this time, ketchup was considered to be so ubiquitous, common and cheap that to use it was thought to be a sign of an infantile palate.”

It probably didn’t help that White Castle became America’s first fast-food chain in 1921, and they sold sliders topped with none other than ketchup. Not long after, McDonald’s came about, and suddenly burgers, fries and ketchup were everywhere, which may have also contributed to the long-standing idea that ketchup is somewhat of a low-brow condiment. Sadly, the impact of this stigma remains to this day.

Chicago Hates Ketchup

Chicago is the capital of anti-ketchup propaganda in America, and its people aren’t afraid to tell everyone how they feel (Obama lived in the Windy City, which is apparently where he developed his hatred of ketchup on hot dogs). “Chicagoans infamously refuse ketchup on a hot dog because its many inhabitants of German heritage knew well that mustard is traditional, the sharpness complimenting the fatty hot dog,” Albala explains. “Adding sweet ketchup is cognitive dissonance by this logic.”

However, Smith says, he lived in Germany, and they had ketchup on their sausages, so it’s clear the Germans have gotten over their beef with ketchup. Regardless, the Chicagoans are unlikely to budge on their stance, so now the rest of us have to feel bad about savoring ketchup.

Kids Love Ketchup

Beyond cultural preferences, another reason why ketchup is perceived as a kids’ condiment is because children and teenagers love it. That’s because it’s sweet and sugary, which is ideal for a developing palate. “Kids put ketchup on lots of things because they don’t like the taste of something new and different, and ketchup is familiar to them,” Smith says.

This made it easy for people to rule out ketchup as infantile. As condiment expert Tom Nealon tells me, “It’s pretty common for old people to assume that because kids like something, it’s ipso facto childish, which is, of course, dumb and reductive.”

When Heinz introduced a squeezable plastic bottle for its ketchup in 1983, ketchup haters took that as a further sign of the condiment’s childish appeal. “When the squeeze bottle became the primary form of dispersal instead of the glass bottle, it made it much easier to pigeonhole and dismiss ketchup as a kids’ thing,” Nealon explains. “It catered too much to children and made the whole thing seem a little foolish.”

And Yet, Ketchup Still Reigns Supreme

Despite these anti-ketchup developments, Albala says, “There’s nothing inherently real about these preferences.” In fact, 97 percent of Americans have ketchup in their fridge, which is proof that ketchup is more loved than hated. This isn’t the case in only America, either. “It’s virtually everywhere,” Smith says.

To place rules on ketchup — or to make a person feel bad because of their love for the condiment — like the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council does, is totalitarian. “They miss the whole point of condiments,” Nealon says. “They’re the ultimate democratic food element — not sauces that our food is served to us in or spices that our food is cooked in, but flavors we customize ourselves.”

So, if you love ketchup, put it on whatever you’d like. If you don’t, leave us alone (except for Trump — you can yell at him all you want).