Sunday, March 23, 2014

Red Stuff

He had no teeth and cadged his meals, eating free ketchup by the spoonful in diners.

Joshua Prager (on Joe Gould)
Vanity Fair
Although other bottled condiments may have contributed worthy expressions to the language (such as “hold the mayo” and “cut the mustard,”) it is ketchup that has staked a place as a cultural, political, and economic signifier that the other condiments can’t match. One cannot imagine a down-at-heels (alleged) poet like Joe Gould attempting to subsist on mayonnaise or mustard helpings scrounged from eateries. Nor would one even imagine cold-hearted Reaganites positing replacing a helping of vegetables in school lunch meals with a splash of mayo or mustard. But “Let Them Eat Ketchup!”—a fitting title for a book by Sheila Collins, subtitled “The Politics of Poverty and Inequality.” The new Agriculture Department regulations for school lunch programs may have been hastily withdrawn, but as Time magazine (Oct. 12, 1981) reported, they nevertheless “remain[ed] in many minds a symbol of what critics see as the Reagan team's callous indifference to the poor.”
Citizens of Argentina would love today to have readily-available servings of ketchup. Unfortunately, as a signifier of that South American country’s economic distress, the red stuff has been in short supply. Last month, McDonald’s apologized for the shortage: “The ketchup shortage at our local branches is momentary and we hope to solve it as soon as possible. We’re bringing in other sauces to replace it while we try to fix the problem.” But the problem is bigger than one chain’s duress. While observing that it’s “unclear what exactly is causing the supply problems,” blogger Roberto A. Ferdman at pointed to “a tumbling Argentine peso, the country’s shrinking supply of valuable US dollars, and rising inflation” as making it increasingly difficult to import foreign goods, such as the packets of ketchup McDonald’s imports from neighboring Chile.
The thing I am most grateful for in dealing with the red stuff is the fact that over the last generation (see image below) the spelling (and, especially, pronunciation) “ketchup” has outstripped the usage of ugliest word in the English language, “catsup,” which made it seem that the condiment was only fit for a feline’s repast.
One person who looked on ketchup as no more worthy than a meow meal was Paolo Di Canio, who for a brief time (March 31, 2013 to September 22, 2013) was manager of Sunderland in English football’s top division. Di Canio would not let his cats—the Black Cats being the nickname of Sunderland—have ketchup (and, it must be admitted, mayonnaise) at the training ground dining table, a ban that epitomized the avowed Fascist manager’s dictatorial regime. Despite a famous victory against Sunderland’s arch-rivals, Newcastle United, Di Canio quickly fell out of favor with players and supporters, and, after starting the 2013-2014 with just one tie in the first five games, he was shown the door. No announcement was made about restoration of ketchup to the table, but one imagines that the players have since been able to squeeze or shake out the red stuff to their heart’s delight.
Di Canio claimed that ketchup and mayo “can cause chemical problems to the liver, to the stomach.” Di Canio cited no supporting evidence for his assertion. In fact, it is possible that ketchup, instead of having a deleterious effect of the body, may indeed be a boon. An article entitled “Stopping Stroke Before It Starts – With Ketchup” by Kevin Charles Redmon in Pacific Standard (October 22, 2012) reported on a study in which Finnish researchers followed a thousand middle-aged men for more than a decade to see if the amount of antioxidants in their diet had any bearing on the likelihood of stroke. The study found that “serum levels of antioxidants had little effect on a patient’s stroke risk—with the exception of lycopene, a red carotenoid found in fruits like tomatoes. Men who consumed lots of lycopene . . . faced a 55 to 60 percent lower risk of stroke than men who consumed little of the antioxidant.” Redmon pointed out that because of the small sample and the numerous variables that need to be corrected for, “it’s impossible to separate correlation and causality. Did lycopene actually ward off strokes with its antioxidant properties, or was it merely a byproduct of a veggie-rich diet and healthy lifestyle?”

Redmon summed up as follows: ”For now, it’s safe to say that gobs of ketchup can’t hurt you any—but it’s not safe to say much more than that.”

Still, a good enough go-ahead to attack that Big Mac with the red stuff.

Unless you’re in Argentina.

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