Leave it to Michael Landrum, the socially conscious improprietor of Ray’s the Steaks and Ray’s the Classics, to regurgitate one of the Reagan Administration‘s more embarrassing, non-Iran/Contra moments. And he’s done it right there on his condiments counter at Ray’s Hell Burgers. The salty-dog toque even teased his meat-crazed followers with this taunt on DonRockwell.com:
“The exceptionally observant among you may, beginning tonight, notice a new subversive element to Ray’s Hell-Burger, insidious in its fearful symmetry.”
The subversive element is Landrum’s side-by-side placement of catsup and ketchup on his stainless-steel condiments bar. It’s the chef/owner’s way to recall that moment in 1981, just months into Reagan’s first term, when someone within the U.S. Department of Agriculture tried to reclassify ketchup as a vegetable. The proposal, widely ridiculed at the time, was just one idea to try to help school districts produce a more economical lunch while still maintaining USDA standards for child nutrition. Congress helped fuel this absurd moment of nutritional debasement by cutting $1 billion from child-nutrition funding.
The Straight Dope‘s Cecil Adams laid out the whole bizarre story in a 2004 column.
Apparently, the mere idea of legally declaring “ketchup” a vegetable was enough to send Del Monte into a tailspin. Both Landrum and this source recall that the manufacturer switched the name of its product from “catsup” to “ketchup” in order to jump on the school-lunch-program gravy train. The name changed proved premature; the condiment-as-vegetable proposal was never implemented.
The strange/funny thing is, even today it’s hard to find a manufacturer that produces “catsup,” which apparently was the more common spelling for decades in North America. Landrum had to scour the country to find his producer, Henry’s Sauce & Condiment Company in Montana, which produces this wonderful, wintery catsup (or ketchup, catchup or even kê-chiap if you want to go back to the condiment’s Asian roots) made with apple cider vinegar. It’s thinner and darker than most mainstream ketchups and tastes, not unpleasantly so, of molasses. I don’t know why, but that’s what it tasted like to me.
I definitely preferred it over the usual stuff. I also liked the idea of getting far away from mainstream ketchup producers, whether to make a political point or not.