There may be no better embodiment of our collective condiment fetish than the National Harbor restaurant simply titled Ketchup. Its U-shaped bar glows in saucy neon red. Its walls feature artworks honoring the squeeze bottle. Its signature dish, the “threesome,” involves three styles of French fries accompanied by six kinds of ketchup—a kinky comfort food orgy intended for either intimate sharing or grotesque self-indulgence.
On a recent visit, the gauntlet of goopy dipping sauces arrives in the following order: First, a spicy but thin orange chipotle. Next up, a chunky and tart “bacon” ketchup that, frankly, doesn’t taste much like bacon. These are followed by a sweet and syrupy honey-based sauce, a zesty chutney-like substance and a creamy fruity flavor that I’m guessing is apricot.
Not a single one of these sauces is especially good or even memorable. Until you try No. 6. That one is bold and robust—thick, salty, sweet, and savory. And it goes great with all three types of fries.
What is this delightful dip? “The sixth is Heinz,” the bartender points out.
Of course it is.
Nowadays, virtually every pseudo-gastropub in town is making its own ketchup. The prevailing ethos of our times simply demands it. Today’s culinary religion treats ingredient selection as a moral issue as well as a gustatory one. With a D.I.Y. ethic pervading D.C.-area kitchens, cooks are doing all sorts of things in-house—from pickling their own vegetables to, in some cases, keeping bees for honey.
The intense focus on craftsmanship has undoubtedly helped to elevate the overall quality of many foods. Diners now have access to better cheese, better bacon, better bread.
And much, much, much worse ketchup.
There is scientific evidence to explain why the heavily processed, mass-produced bottled brand—laden with the high fructose corn syrup—is superior to sauces made locally from scratch. Heinz, it seems, hits every fundamental flavor that registers on your tongue: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. As a lengthy examination of sensory-analysis studies in the New Yorker back in 2004 showed, it’s a degree of complexity that would be quite difficult to replicate consistently outside factory controls.
So much for why that bottle of Heinz in your fridge tastes good. The question of why that ramekin full of house-made artisanal glop tastes so lousy is something else entirely.
I have sampled a range of house ketchups at various D.C. venues. They all fall short. The best anyone can seem to manage is either (a) an orange-tinted watery knock-off that is too tangy, too sweet, or too bland; or, (b) an unusual variation that eschews the tomato, altogether, to unfortunate effect.
The most vocal propagandist for the anti-Heinz movement is, of course, D.C.’s most vocal chef, José Andrés. At his historically themed pop-up restaurant America Eats Tavern, you can order up to eight different styles of ketchups—er, “catsups,” as they appear on the menu. On a recent visit, such diverse flavors as blackberry, blueberry, cherry, grape, gooseberry, mushroom, and tomato were available.
Lined up in a row, the thin syrups look like watercolor paints, and don’t taste much better.
According to Andrés, whose staff dusted off various 19th century American cookbooks to retrieve the recipes, the goal was to “celebrate ketchup, not be ashamed of it,” as he told the New York Times in August. Andrés went on to bemoan American society for letting its diversity in dipping sauces slip into the dustbin of culinary history. (On the other hand, he didn’t seem to have a problem with letting other aspects of our culinary tradition fall by the wayside: Though condiments come free at most eateries, ask for some of that gooseberry catsup with your America Eats meal and you’ll find your check goosed to the tune of $3 for each shot-glass sized serving.)
Andrés can worship history all he wants, but there is a good reason blueberry ketchup went extinct: It sucks. And glorifying an inferior product seems less like a celebration of American culinary achievement than an insult.
In fact, many of the folks who treat ketchup as a subject for shame seem to take their cues from the Spanish-born Andrés’ side of the pond. Consider the French government, which just last week placed new restrictions on ketchup in schools. Parisian bureaucrats apparently fear that the sauce’s inherent deliciousness might undermine children’s appreciation of French cuisine.
“What we need to recognize in America is, those are our Proustian moments—the Oreo, ketchup—whether we like it or not,” says John Cochran, former chef at the shuttered Shaw’s Tavern. Cochran is about as reluctant of a spokesman for Heinz as they come. Prior to his restaurant’s closing in August, he served a homemade roasted tomato ketchup, cooked down with cider vinegar, a touch of molasses, cloves and cinnamon, with plans to later abandon the tomato for seasonal substitutes rhubarb, beet, butternut squash, and even parsnip.
Like many of the condiment’s critics, Cochran’s main beef with the bottled brand boils down to a single ingredient. “The thing about ketchup nowadays is that most of it has so much corn syrup in it,” he says. “It’s just so sweet.”
I liked a lot of Cochran’s cooking—but his ketchup didn’t seem quite sweet enough.
You’ll find a similar style of tangy tomato sauce at the new Boundary Stone in Bloomingdale, where “everything from our pickle spears to our ketchup is made in house,” says chef Vincent Campaniello. “I think the taste is fresher.” Campaniello makes his version with onion, garlic, bell pepper, vinegar, sugar, Worcestershire, lemon juice, tomato, clove, and fresh parsley.
On a recent outing to Boundary Stone, my dining companion, alas, didn’t say anything about the ketchup’s freshness. Instead, she described the orangey sauce as little more than “tangy water.” But Campaniello defends his recipe as staying true to the standard-bearer. At least to some extent.
“If you look on the back of a Heinz 57 bottle, most of the flavors that are in there I have in my ketchup,” he says. “Of course, it doesn’t taste like Heinz 57, because it’s not processed. But it’s close to it, I think.”
To a Heinz disciple like me, that statement borders on blasphemy. But Campaniello is more agnostic on the subject. “Growing up, I was never a ketchup fan,” he says. “I personally loathe Heinz 57. I never really cared for it. I’m a mustard fanatic.”
One Heinz aficionado who is nonetheless serving his own homemade ketchup is Logan Cox, head chef at Ripple in Cleveland Park. Cox’s recipe sounds quite similar to Campaniello’s, with the exception of additional ingredients juniper and bay leaves.
I found his version a bit thicker than Boundary Stone’s but a lot sweeter than Heinz.
Beyond mere ethics, Cox says a big reason for making ketchup in-house is simply the novelty factor: “It’s more of an exploratory thing for the diner to try something new and be like, ‘Oh, it’s cool. I mean, it doesn’t taste like Heinz but it sort of does. And it’s really interesting how they got really close to it.’”
He’d get even closer, if only he could.
“I would love to know how to make Heinz 57 ketchup, to be honest with you,” Cox says. “To me, Heinz is the only ketchup there is.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery
America Eats Tavern, 405 8th St. NW, (202) 393-0812
Boundary Stone, 116 Rhode Island Ave. NW
Ketchup, 152 Waterfront St., Oxon Hill, (301) 749-7099
Ripple, 3417 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 244-7995
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