President Obama Joined The Anti-Ketchup Movement, But Is He Right?

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You may not know this, but people have ketchup takes. People have hot ketchup takes. People’s ketchup takes are so hot that our own Brian Grubbambassador of all things rationalhad to write a piece validating the desires of certain people to put ketchup on their hot dogs.

It’s not just a few people here and there, either. The ketchup hate is bigger than that. It’s widespread. Anti-ketchup crusaders rove the badlands of the internet, mocking anyone who likes the red stuff (particularly when it’s on hot dogs).

Just look at Thrillist exhibiting zero chill about the world’s best fake blood/condiment:

Serious Eats writer Nick Solares took things up a notch, penning a diss track with the title of a prestige piece:

Then last night, on the long awaited premiere of Anthony Bourdain‘s Parts Unknown, President Obama piled more fuel on the fire:

“Is ketchup on a hot dog ever acceptable?” Bourdain asked POTUS as they slurped noodles in Vietnam like old backpacking buddies.

“No,” Obama said. “I mean that … that’s one of those things like, well, let me put it this way, it’s not acceptable past the age of 8.”

All of which is fine, of course. The leader of the free world gets to hate any condiment he wants. Besides, Bourdain, another outspoken ketchup hater, did ask. Still, it’s interesting to think about why the traditionally circumspect president was so definitive. If you’re willing to put on a tinfoil hat, there may actually be a political reason.

In 1995, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Mike Royko wrote a piece titled, “Only Barbarians Put Ketchup on Hot Dogs.” The article is a tongue-in-cheek hit piece on a U.S. senator from Illinois who dared add ketchup to her recipe for the perfect hot dog. Its thesis is, “Do not reelect this woman. She can’t be trusted.” And while it’s obviously meant to be funny, Royko was very serious about hating ketchup. He wrote about it fairly often.

Considering that the piece was written about a local politician, by a famous Chicagoan, at a time when Obama’s political aspirations were starting to congeal, it’s not a stretch to see how the president may have developed a hard line stance. But what about the rest of us? Are we right about this whole ketchup-is-trash-thing?

Probably not. Culinarily-speaking, ketchup makes a pretty good case as a viable condiment. Stewed down tomatoes are essentially liquid umami bombs and — considering our obsession with umami’s savoriness — you’d think that ketchup use would actually be on the upswing. Look at any of the new umami boosters that have gotten popular lately and you’ll see that tomato paste is invariably the first ingredient listed. Meanwhile vinegar, another of ketchup’s key ingredients, is actually great at brightening the palate and balancing flavors. The vinegar in ketchup helps ease the richness of potatoes (French fries), ground beef (burgers), and fatty pork (hot dogs). Cutting those unctuous flavors is a necessity, otherwise the dishes are too rich, and ketchup presents a pretty reasonable way to do so.

Point being: if you want a layered flavor profile, you could do a lot worse, condiment wise.

That’s not to say there’s no merit to the disdain. The major knock against ketchup is that it’s too sweet, because of high fructose corn syrup. Often true, but not always the case. Besides, wouldn’t the “too sugary” argument simply lead us to conclude that “bad ketchup is bad” just like “bad chocolate is bad”? Is all ketchup deserving of the vitriol? Have you tried house-made ketchup or just Heinz and Hunts?

Max Schlutz, culinary director at Sessions West Coast Deli, is a ketchup apologist. “It’s a strong part of my favorite sauces,” he explains. “It adds sweetness and tartness and body that I can’t get anywhere else.”

Greg Daniels owner of Haven Gastropub agrees. “Ketchup is delicious,” he says, laughing at the idea that this debate is real, “it’s sweet and tangy and it has that full flavor of tomato.”

“It’s a bit too spicy,” his daughter, Madeline, chimes.

The chef laughs, “She means tangy. She thinks it’s too tangy.”

Tang aside, why has this one condiment driven so much culinary conversation? Bourdain had a lot to talk with POTUS about, how did ketchup make the cut? Why is this the hill that food aficionados are ready to die on?

Schultz believes that the ketchup scorn is a sign of the times, a period in which seeming locked in on your opinions reads as strength. “It’s the era we live in. It’s politics, it’s sports, it’s every aspect of life. You have to say, ‘this is how it is‘ and there’s no arguing. People act certain, and it’s up to us to figure out if they’re right or wrong.”

It’s an interesting thought, and any argument that opens the door to nuance is inherently more interesting. Maybe we don’t all have to act quite so certain when it comes to food. Maybe, in this entrenched time in history we could all benefit from the good old “you like your condiments and I’ll like mine” mentality.

Except about ranch dressing, that stuff is f*cking terrible and anyone who says otherwise is a monster.

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