Growing up in the Windy City, I was always told to never, ever put ketchup on a hotdog, but no one explained why. (Turns out, when Jimmy Faruggia opened Jimmy’s Red Hots here in 1954, he claimed that ketchup was only used to cover up the taste of rotten meat, and since his dogs were fresh, he never offered ketchup, a now-unquestioned Chicago tradition.) In any event, I continued to eat it on my fries, burgers, chicken fingers and occasionally the crust of a good Midwestern meatloaf, without realizing the reason God and Bourdain warned against it: Ketchup is kind of disgusting, and perhaps the most divisive condiment of them all.
To that end, Stanford professor Dan Jurafsky found that the repulsive roots of the condiment date back much further than the 1950s and Faruggia, as ketchup was first made from fermented fish entrails, per an ancient Chinese agricultural text dated 544 CE, and used to season soups, sauces, meat and fish. Over time, the rise of trade in the mid-18th century allowed various ketchup recipes — which involved the fermentation of everything from fish, to meat, to soybeans — to find their way to Europe.
The first tomato-based ketchup wasn’t invented until 1812 by Philadelphia scientist, horticulturist and physician James Mease. Mease, who worked as a surgeon during the War of 1812, had seemingly no interest in the business side of condiment development; his creation was purely a product of his passion for tomatoes, which he referred to as “love apples.” By all accounts, his final product resembled tomato sauce and was made of various spices and brandy, not sugar and vinegar. In his book Pure Ketchup: A History of America’s National Condiment With Recipes, culinary historian Andrew F. Smith speculates that Mease more than likely got the idea from French-Creole refugees from the 1804 Haitian genocide.
Strangely, it was medical doctors who continued to popularize ketchup in the U.S. For example, in 1834, Ohio physician John Cook Bennett asserted that tomatoes were a “universal panacea,” claiming they could be used to treat diarrhea, nausea and indigestion. He even began publishing recipes for tomato-based ketchup concentrated into pill form, which was sold as medicine, almost like an old-timey probiotic. However, it was a struggle to mass-produce ketchup until Heinz introduced distilled vinegar into their recipe in 1876. This is also when they began packaging it in their signature glass bottle.
“Most commercial ketchups are closer to candy than tomatoes,” recipe writer and chemical engineer Jim Mumford tells me. Two of the first four ingredients listed in ketchup — high-fructose corn syrup and corn syrup — are basically straight-up sugar; meanwhile, the first, tomato concentrate, is made of glucose and fructose, which is “akin to that corn syrup.” Essentially, a single tablespoon of ketchup has more sugar in it than a chocolate-chip cookie. “Adding sugar onto, say, a hot dog, is a palette no-no,” Mumford says.
Not to mention, adds fitness entrepreneur David McHugh, “The condiment is laced with preservatives and additives that can cause health issues in the long run.” To his point, ketchup contains more than 50 additives in all, 11 of which come with a “high risk of over-exposure,” meaning they’re dangerous in large quantities. (The average American eats about 71 pounds of ketchup annually.) Of these, McHugh is especially cautious of potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate, which have “been categorized as safe by the FDA in small doses. However, research has found that they can increase the chance of inflammation, stress, obesity and cardiovascular illnesses,” he warns.
But perhaps the best indicator that ketchup is objectively bad is that chefs like Bourdain generally hate it — some so much that they ban it from their kitchens. “My burger has got a sauce on it already. There’s no point in adding a sweet sauce on top of that,” chef Xavier Duclos told The Independent after refusing to serve ketchup at his Florida restaurant, Mad Fresh Bistro, in 2014. He added generously that he thinks “ketchup is edible — on certain things. I’ll give it that much. But it’s just not part of my culinary agenda.”
No one, though, hates ketchup as much as Daniel Morris, a homeschooling parent and marketing writer. “I hate ketchup on multiple levels — I hate it on fries; I hate it on burgers; and I hate it on or with any other food,” he laments. He loathes both how its refrigerated temperature cools hot food and the fart sound it makes when it’s squeezed out of a bottle. In fact, he’s become downright tactical about avoiding it altogether. “I always know when I’m in an environment where ketchup may come into play, and I make sure I counter the danger by outright stating that I do not want it,” Morris tells me.
Even the name, ketchup, grosses him out. And the smell? “Just thinking about the smell sends shivers up my spine and makes me feel sick to my stomach,” Morris says. His aversion has gotten so bad over the years that his friends and family love to prank him by putting ketchup on his arm. “They think it’s so funny, but I can’t stand it; it feels disgusting,” he continues.
The thing is, as much as I accept ketchup as objectively off-putting and would never disrespect the memory of Anthony Bourdain or the City of Chicago by putting it near a hotdog, I love ketchup and finally understand why: Ketchup makes me feel like a kid again, almost like I’m eating crayons or Play-Doh, but better because there are fries involved.
Plus, the small dopamine boost from its unanticipated sugar rush makes my unhealthy fast-food addiction seem more like a quaint comfort. In that way, ketchup helps me forget the horrible mistake I made long enough to do it all over again a week later. All this time, I wasn’t gorging on McDonald’s — I was getting nostalgic.