Ketchup Catch-Up

At the Communion rail in our pre-COVID, in-person church days, my wife and I would sometimes laugh at the size of the hunk of bread they’d tear off the loaf. The pieces were so big I’d often be chewing all the way back to my seat (and think I should’ve asked for seconds). On the other hand, today’s “drive-in church” Communion amounts to hermetically-sealed plastic capsules handed gingerly through the car window. Peel back the plastic to reveal the tasteless wafer and half-swallow of grape juice inside. No, it’s not breakfast by any definition, but at least we’re still achieving the higher purpose.

Communion and ketchup are strange bedfellows but I’m about to explain why they belong in the same sentence.  If you’ve followed the headlines lately, you know – just below the latest details of the Myanmar conflict – we’re all worried about whether there’ll be enough ketchup packets for our next take-out meal.  That’s right, the world is currently lacking in – not ketchup – but ketchup packets.  If we don’t address the situation soon, buildings will burn and looting will run rampant.  Even worse, we might have to top everything with mustard instead.

It’s the pandemic to blame, of course.  As soon as traditional sit-down restaurants shifted to pick-up and delivery, their demand for packeted condiments jumped up to the level of Wendy’s and McDonald’s.  In fact, Wendy’s and McDonald’s removed ketchup packets from their front counters, not because customers were taking too many, but because other restaurants were raiding their supplies.  Yep, it’s gotten that kind of desperate out there in burger land.

Heinz, the undisputed king of ketchup, recently committed to increasing packet production by 25% to fend off potential mayhem in the streets.  125% of Heinz’s typical annual production amounts to, well… let’s just say there’d be enough to place a packet in the hand of every man, woman, and child on the planet.  Dang.  That’s a whole lot of processed tomato spread.

Speaking of processed tomato spread, here’s my favorite ingredient in ketchup: mustard (powder).  It’s true.  Go check the ingredients list on the bottle I know you have in your refrigerator.

Will there be enough to go around?

But I digress.  Let’s get back to the global packet shortage.  Call me highbrow but I’m having a hard time caring, because honestly I can’t remember the last time I used a ketchup packet.  The restaurants of my choosing always bring the bottle to the table when you ask for it.  Furthermore – burgers aside – I don’t have a lot of use for ketchup.  Not on my fries, not on my meatloaf, neither eggs nor hash browns.  And while we’re at it can we all agree: mustard only on a bratwurst or a hot dog?  It should be a cardinal rule.

But I digress… again.  FOCUS!

If I don my eco-friendly hat for a moment (and don’t I look sharp?), the last thing I want to hear about is Heinz upping ketchup packet production to 12 billion a year.  That sounds like enough plastic to Ziploc a small country many times over.  But I get it.  In these times of please-pass-the-virus (or better yet, don’t), we demand individually wrapped one-and-done solutions.  Like ketchup packets.  Like Communion elements.

Handy host

Good things come in small packages, so the saying goes.  Yeah, well, they come in big packages too.  Like ketchup from a bottle instead of a plastic packet.  Like Communion from a loaf of freshly baked bread instead of hole-punched from a sheet of Styrofoam. And seriously, who uses just one ketchup packet?  Picture a baby burger you can balance between your finger and thumb and maybe it’s enough.  Anything larger and you’re grabbing packets by the handful.

Let’s wrap this topic on a personal note.  If ketchup packets disappear, my granddaughters won’t understand a really good bedtime story, the kind where they’ll giggle every time they talk about it.  You know the story, the one where my buddies and I pocket ketchup packets from our school lunch trays, take ’em out to the playground asphalt, and stomp on ’em to give some unsuspecting kid a tomato facewash?  Oh please, drop the mock horror.  You know you were out there on the playground too, doing the very same thing.

Some content sourced from the 4/8/2021 CNN.com article, “America is facing a ketchup packet shortage”.

Come What Mayo

When I was a kid, I had this inexplicable obsession with cheese sandwiches. Maybe it was the popular Wonder Bread of the time (a slice of which could be reduced down to a compact dough ball with minimal effort). Maybe it was fondness for the Tillamook cheese my mother always had on hand; the sandwich merely serving as an edible container.  Surely it was because they were super-simple to make.  Whatever the reason, cheese sandwiches would’ve been utterly dry-mouthed and unappealing without the essential third ingredient: mayonnaise.

Tartar sauce or mayonnaise?

The easy guess here is you have mayonnaise in your refrigerator.  Go check.  Even if you don’t, you have the ingredients to make your own: eggs, oil, and vinegar or lemon juice (blended together at high speed and allowed to set).  The fancier versions of mayo add in some spices.  Your particular brand probably lives quietly in the refrigerator door or towards the back of one of the shelves, alongside several other condiments.  But the more I learn about mayonnaise the less inclined I am to group it together with the basics like ketchup and mustard.

West of the Rockies where I grew up, the standard brand of mayonnaise was always Best Foods.  When I moved east of the Rockies later in life, the name changed to Hellmann’s but the label, the jar, and ingredients were exactly the same.  That was always an oddity to me – until I learned Best Foods acquired Hellmann’s after both brands were solidly established.  Rather than drop one for the other Best Foods just kept them both.  Same product, same packaging, different name.  [Note: those of you in the southeastern U.S. may prefer Duke’s Mayonnaise – a distant third in sales.  At least Duke’s tastes distinctly different than these fraternal twins.]

The essential ingredients

Mayonnaise has one of those prolonged evolutions you could care less about, including its debatable origins.  Several moments in European history claim ties to its invention.  The most credible story (or the most romantic – take your pick) has the French winning the Seven Years’ War in 1756, and the victory dinner including a fish course, but no cream to make the tartar sauce.  The chef improvised with eggs, oil, and garlic instead, and voila: mayonnaise.  Further, the dinner took place in the Spanish port city of Mahon, so the sauce was dubbed “mahonnaise”.  Elegant name, no?

On French fries – seriously?

But for a few uses I can take or leave mayonnaise.  In addition to my childhood cheese sandwiches I only use mayonnaise for tuna salad, potato salad, or cole slaw.  I never put mayonnaise on a burger (do you?)  It’s ketchup on my French fries not mayonnaise (apparently that’s a “thing” with some of you).  It’s drawn butter on my artichokes (again, not mayonnaise).  And speaking of the cheese sandwiches, I recall my mother packing school lunches with bologna-and-mayonnaise sandwiches.  Meat and mayo on the bread – that was it.  No Tillamook cheese, no lettuce or tomato, no pickle on the side.  There’s a harsh simplicity to bologna and mayonnaise.  In other words, I hated the combo (and maybe that’s why mayonnaise only gets “a few uses” in my world now).

After my wife and I met, I discovered another refrigerator regular besides Hellmann’s: Miracle Whip.  You could say Miracle Whip masquerades as mayonnaise (same look, same wide-mouthed jar) but the taste is decidedly sweeter.  Check out MW’s ingredients and you’ll discover a clone of mayonnaise… but with a healthy dose of high fructose corn syrup (sugar).  I like the tangy taste of Miracle Whip but I can’t help thinking mayonnaise is the healthier alternative.  Credit Kraft Foods though, who debuted their “less expensive alternative to mayonnaise” at the Depression-era 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.  Almost a hundred years later MW’s a staple condiment, and the Miracle Whip-or-mayonnaise debate lands in the same conversation as Coke vs. Pepsi, Uncle Ben’s vs. Minute (rice), and Aunt Jemima’s vs. Log Cabin (syrup).

“Mayo-nnaise…”

If you’re like me, at some point in this post your sub-conscience drums up the 1982 romance “An Officer and a Gentleman” (If not, you’ve missed a great film).  If you’ve been to Ireland you probably know County Mayo in the northwest corner of the country.  Better yet, go visit the town of Mayo on the northeast coast of Florida.  A few years ago Mayo changed its name to Miracle Whip as a publicity stunt.  Okay, that tops all other “mayo” references I can come up with.

As little as I dip into my mayonnaise jar, I’ve seen plenty of expiration dates.  It might behoove me to make my own instead.  Eggs, oil, and vinegar, with a little salt to taste, whipped at high speed.  Sounds American easy-as-pie.  But call it mahonnaise, okay?  Then you’ll have something sounding more like what the French cooked up all those years ago.

Some content sourced from the 7/9/2020 Wall Street Journal article, “The Delicious Evolution of Mayonnaise”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.