It’s happening, all around us. Look at your menu. Is it happening? Oh my god, it’s happening: “house-made artisanal organic ketchup” is happening.
It is dangerous, and it has to stop.
Too often, in their quest to create something different, memorable, and so very “them,” restaurants from Charleston to San Francisco to that culinary wonderland Charlevoix, MI, forget about “people who are not them," who "just like regular-ass ketchup.” So while they’re house-making their wonderfully groundbreaking turnip sardine caper aioli, they might also get the not-bright idea to work tomatoes, and vinegar, and some honey from the beehive they’ve been cultivating in the interactive dining room into an unholy mixture they call “Catsup, Buttercup.”
This is hazardous, to all of us. When I order my burger, I'm picturing the Heinz I'm going to bathe it in. That very specific, very expected flavor element is part of why I ordered the burger in the first place -- it's just part of the deal. Ketchup should be a constant, not a variable.
And it's not just the stuff that they pureed from their tomato garden out back that just happens to abut the welding shop. I’ve literally stopped going to multiple restaurants that plate truly delicious burgers, solely because they only served their own, wretchedly try-hard stuff, or Sir Kensington’s -- the most well-known ketchup fancybrand, which comes in an over-designed squat glass bottle, and whose spokesperson is Snidely Whiplash dressed as Mr. Monopoly. I’ve never had Fine Vines Artisanal Ketchup -- including its Lemon Twist and Alder Wood varieties, if you can believe that!! -- and that’s just fine vines with me. Oh, and Annie. You make a mean mac & cheese, woman, but why is your ketchup spicy, and… not Heinz?
However you feel about his hair, Malcolm Gladwell has made a career of saying all sorts of smart stuff. But the smartest thing of them all was “I guess ketchup is ketchup.” Actually he didn’t say that, a guy named Howard Moskowitz did, in Gladwell’s splendid pro-regular-ketchup story The Ketchup Conundrum.
But the point of that statement -- the summation of a wonderfully researched piece about a how a carnival barker of a ketchup-maker was doomed before he first left his tomatoes too chunky -- is that no matter how hard you try, you can’t beat what Henry James Heinz bottled back in 1876. You can’t fancy it up. Or actually, you CAN, but that’s the first step on a short road directly to insignificance. Heinz’s flavor collisions are, very literally and possibly scientifically, perfect. Our mouths love umami -- that evasive but very real fifth basic taste -- and Heinz has a shitload of it.
Now, I’ve been squeezing the bottle of Heinz-praise all over this web page, but don’t get me wrong: more than just the standard bearer is acceptable as a dipping reservoir for my fries. Hunt’s? I’ll take it without complaint, especially if it’s in those little delivery packets, for some reason. Red Gold? One of my favorite restaurants ever has it tattooed on its exterior wall, which is enough for me. Del Monte? It sounds like first names of your uncle’s two best friends -- and just like Del and Monte, it’s not trying too hard. (Although Del can be a little on the showy side when he’s throwing horseshoes, but hey, let’s let him off the hook.)
You know who I'm not letting off the hook? People who think I want their house-made artisanal organic ketchup. Get it away from me and bring me a squeeze bottle of the real stuff.
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Ben Robinson is Thrillist's Editorial Director, and also puts Heniz on his hot dogs, even in Chicago. Follow him down the condiment aisle at @BenjoRobinson.