I was deeply alienated by an article in a recent New Yorker about the universal appeal of Heinz ketchup, which, through some dubious pseudoscientific claims made by professional “academic” tasters asserts that ketchup perfectly stimulates the five taste regions of the tongue in a harmonious, simutaneous gestalt. (A lengthy and admiring description shows the tasters in action, reawakening their palate’ s taste for tomato with Campbell’s soup.) Thus ketchup is the perfect, universal food, and one that can bear no tinkering or diversification, one that can’t be made gourmet and then used as a status signifier like Grey Poupon mustard.
Now, I hate ketchup and always have. It stimulates all five of my senses of disgust: It looks bad, it smells bad, it tastes bad, it nauseates me, and it sours my mood. So I didn’t appreciate telling me that I should actually — scientifically, in fact — love ketchup. The article went to great lengths to show how ketchup was serendipitously created and then carefully programmed to appeal to those five sense regions of the tongue (including the all-important “umami” region, at the back of the tongue, that detects “body”), so how is it that none of this applies to me? Am I the problem? Am I stubbornly resisting universality, reisting the irresistible appeal of ketchup the same way I resisted Titanic and the music of Coldplay?
I have always considered ketchup to be a noxious sugar-delivery system, so it didn’t surprise me to read that the ketchup bottle was redesigned to allow children to dole out their own predictably larger dollops. The article’s author suggests that this is a way for “neophobic” children (those afraid of new experiences) make strange new food familiar — in other words, to obliterate the taste of the new food by reducing it to ketchup. The taste for ketchup then survives into adulthood as a comfort food, a reminder of how one has the power to neutralize raw, powerful experiences by diluting them with sugar. This all may be true, but it seems like an elaborate rationalization prepared to skirt the more fundamental truth and obvious explanation that sugar is addictive, and children are especially vulnerable to it.
The article was most interested in exploring why ketchup so far hasn’t been made into a connoisseur product, like mustard or coffee or pasta sauce, with many different varieties that appeal to different nuances in taste. In other words, why hasn’t ketchup been used to fragment the market and create special subsets that individuals could feel unique and special for belonging to? The article seeks a non-economic explanation for this, showing an admirable belief that things such as taste can still be determined outside of the market, that there is some basic sensory data that precede market mediation. And a non-economic explanation seems to be necessary, since the logic of late capitalism is to segment markets, and optimize a subject’s sense of individual autonomy by allowing him to express it only through buying things like fancy mustard and Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee beans. So is there something hopeful about ketchup’s resistance to this process? Does it prove that people can still taste things, without having what the sense of what they are tasting dictated by ad copy and social status? Can people enjoy food like ketchup for its own sake, and not for its utility as social capital? (e.g. eating foie gras and drinking wine not for itself, for its flavor, but for what kind of person it makes you.) That ability seems endangered. And does ketchup’s inability to be relaunched as a niche product mean that there are some limits on commodification that exist outside the marketplace? That some things can’t be made into more rareified and elaborate commodities, even though the market wants to do so? Seemingly, the taste for ketchup just can’t be controlled by market forces.
In this sense, maybe ketchup really is the ultimate comfort food, reminding us that in certain cases our tastes really do remain autonomous. Ketchup proves that certain tastes remain outside the marketplace and beyond social striving and commodity-made self-importance. Paradoxically, its (alleged) universality proves our authenticity. However, I still wouldn’t eat the nasty stuff.