A Rabbi Reflects on Ketchup
By Rabbi Leiby Burnham
June 21, 2012
Conquering My Condiment Addiction
Ketchup. The most American of condiments. That beautiful mixture of tomatoes, corn syrup (read: sugar) and a little bit of vinegar that makes everything we eat taste just a bit better. We slather it on our hot dogs, douse our fries in it, dump it on fish sticks and use it liberally with just about anything but ice cream.
As a kid, I probably consumed more ketchup than milk. I loved it. However, as I grew older, my affectionate feelings toward ketchup slowly began to turn.
For starters, I realized that it wasn’t the healthiest of condiments. It definitely has fewer calories than an equal portion of mayonnaise, but it is high in carbs and sugar and low in respect for my waistline. (Heinz released a One Carb line of ketchup, but it went the way the purple and green ketchups went — to Ketchup Heaven where all good ketchups go when they are no longer with us.) However, those facts alone wouldn’t propel me to stop eating ketchup, as is evidenced by the fact that I still have not given up mayonnaise.
A matter of taste?
What bothers me so much about ketchup is that it robs me of the diversity of my food. At a certain point, I realized that everything I ate had the strong flavor of ketchup pushing the flavor of the food to the back burner. After a while, hot dogs, calzones and oven-seared salmon all started tasting the same. They tasted like tomatoes with corn syrup and a bit of vinegar.
I first became aware of this while eating at Le Marais, possibly the best kosher steak house in the world. After my steak arrived, grilled medium rare to perfection, I asked the waiter for some ketchup to go with my steak. He gave me the kind of look I would have expected if I had asked for some ketchup to go along with his leg.
Upon reflection, I realized that he was right. Before me I had a delicious (and expensive!) piece of meat, why would I want to mar its taste with anything else? Why wouldn’t I want to experience the meat as it is, not doused in the same thing I put on my mashed potatoes, scrambled eggs and green beans?
Pass the real-life experience, please
Soon after that experience, I started eating foods naked (that is, without ketchup) and I began discovering culinary joys that had been dulled to me before. Try eating a hot dog without ketchup! It tastes really good, and it tastes like a hot dog! I now firmly believe that as a society, we need to overcome our national ketchup addiction and start tasting foods in their pristine state.
The ketchup phenomenon plays itself out in other areas in life. Some people constantly take pictures of everything that they do, to the point that they forget to experience the actual activity, whether it be having a picnic with their family, a friend’s wedding, or climbing Mt. Shasta. Others text or tweet so much that their whole life is experienced through furiously moving thumbs. Still others constantly need the distraction of a TV or iPod and feel quite disconcerted by moments of total silence. But to enjoy life, we need to stop and live in the moment.
Shabbat is the Jewish people’s ketchup-free sanctuary, a place in time where we can live in the moment, without the myriad distractions of the ketchup world. We can gather our family around a Shabbat table, light the candles, make Kiddush, bless our children and be a family. We can talk about our past week, what we’re thankful for, what challenged us and what we hope to accomplish in the coming week. We can joke about Bubbe’s new poodle and Jakie’s little league game. We can be who we are.
We may need to shut out the ketchup for a short while, we may need to turn off the TV, put away the cell phones, the iPods, the laptops and the Xbox for a while, but when we do, we will surely discover that life itself tastes pretty good!