Eaten on Everything (Except Maybe Ice Cream), Ketchup was a Staple of the Working Class in the Fifties

As my friends and I were growing up -such as it was - in the 1950's, there were four things on just about everyone's kitchen table; Salt & Pepper shakers (rarely used but ever present), a plastic napkin holder (always kept completely full as a matter of housekeeping etiquette and a bottle of ketchup - used on just about everything, from meat to eggs, potatoes to noodles (what we once called 'pasta,', from hot dogs to cheese sandwiches. Ubiquitous in its presence and universal in its popularity and use, it twisted the taste buds of an entire generation.

When I first met the woman who would later become my wife, she invited me along with some other friends for dinner. "What were we having," I asked. "Spaghetti," she said. That seemed inexplicably odd to me. You see, as I was growing up, 'spaghetti' was what we called boiled elbow macaroni with melted butter and - you guessed it - ketchup. It was our standard Sunday evening meal. The first time we had scrambled eggs together, I reached for the ketchup and she just looked at me - you know - "the" look that says something like, "What planet did you come from, anyway?"

Through these and other similar experiences, I discovered that what I had always assumed to be the case was not - that everybody's home was not exactly like my own - especially when it came to food.

It wasn't until I was in college that I was first offered a piece of cheesecake. I almost gagged as I tried to decline politely. You see, in my home, "cheese" was equivalent to Velveeta - and a cake made from Velveeta - well, yuch! I had a lot or gastronomical learning to do. There are many examples, but ketchup seems to have been at the heart of the whole thing.

I was taught that poor people would go into diners and order a (then free) cup of hot water, then our in some ketchup and enjoy their version of Tomato Soup.

At times that my sisters and I were foraging for a snack and could only find a loaf of bread (Wonder Bread, of course - back in the day when it built strong b0odies only eight ways!), we would make ketchup sandwiches. A home without ketchup was something we simply could not imagine, It was the only 'spice' we ever used - on pot roast, rice, Chinese Food or white fish! It could be used to stretch anything into more!

Today, I understand that the ketchup was an item representative of our economic situation and our mother's rather limited cooking skills. But knowing that doesn't change anything. I no longer put ketchup on my scrambled eggs - at least not routinely, but I do want to. I continue to use it on omelets, my compromise.

I haven't had a bowl of elbow macaroni with melted butter (or margarine) and ketchup for a good many years - but I confess to being tempted to make it for myself once in a while. I have grown to love cheesecake and loathe Velveeta. Yes, the times have changed and so have some of my tastes and preferences. But they were shaped with and by the spiced tomato preparation that you had to bang the bottom of to get any out; by the red sauce of the common man; by the dually spelled (according to brand), ketchup or catsup.

I suspect that so much early consumption of the stuff actually impacted my overall development as a person, including my neuro-development. Perhaps someday, a researcher from the old neighborhood will take a look.

In the meantime, I recall it fondly and often: and it is still a part of my kitchen rudiments.
Vive la ketchup!

Photo: DavidAaron, By his own permission