A Short Disquisition on Ketchup


The term probably comes to the English language from Chinese, the Amoy dialect, “koechiap,” meaning “brine of fish.”

If you haven’t done so already, check out the ketchup dispensers at McDonalds. Macs is blazing trails in ketchup technology. For those who dine in, next to the drink dispenser you’ll find ketchup taps, probably two of them, along with an array of those delightful paper ketchup shot glasses. Hold your shot glass under the spigot, pull up the black lever, and from the stainless steel tap comes a jet of pure ketchup. The shot glasses are small. If you lose your grip, don’t worry. In the countertop, directly beneath the tap, there is a catch five inches in diameter for dropped shots and other ketchup mishaps.


We’ve gone way beyond Wendy’s, whose ketchup tech, by comparison, is primitive. At Wendy’s, you’ll find kettles of ketchup with a pump mechanism on top. While pumping is pleasurable, if the kettle is empty, the mechanism burps and rattles around, leaving you in a frustrating ketchup lurch. McDonalds’ ketchup is pressurized. Remember cheese whiz? Cheese under pressure, like shaving cream: press the button on top of the can to express cheese onto your cracker. That’s what we have here, only on a sublime scale. You have to figure, under that counter, there must be 25 gallon vats of McDonald’s special blend. Next to those paltry gallon kettles at Wendy’s, the Mac vats are in a league of the own. Think 80 gig hard drives and floppy disks.


About the blend. I ate at McDonalds not long ago with my dad. When I was drawing a couple shots of ketchup, I couldn’t help but notice separation. Around the perimeter of the shot glass, the ketchup was iridescent orange, in the center, rich tomato red. The orange was disturbing. Could this be a bad batch of ketchup? To test my hypothesis, I drew off a shot from the other tap. Same result. It got me thinking. Could it be, deep in the bowels of the restaurant, there was a magisterial source, a well of this red gold? It was thrilling to consider.

I joined my dad in our booth, unwrapped my double cheeseburger without the cheese, and showed him the ketchup. “Huh,” he said. I stirred the ketchup with a crisp fry, then tasted. Good fry. Made better by ketchup.


“You know,” my dad says, “that ketchup is what they call a pseudoplastic.”

I dunk and eat another fry.

“Yes,” he says. “Force causes changes in its viscosity. Lava, whipped cream, blood, paint, and nail polish: these are other examples of pseudoplastics.”

“So what I’m seeing in this ketchup,” I say, munching on fries, “it’s normal?”

“Exactly,” he says. “I would not be alarmed.”

I check my burger to make sure it has enough ketchup on it. You can never be sure. We pop the lids on our milkshakes, mine chocolate, his strawberry, break out our individually wrapped black plastic spoons, and take to these sweet delights. The milkshake too seems like a pseudo substance, miles, probably lightyears from real cows grazing in real fields, giving us their milk.

I don’t want to think about it. I just wish I’d gotten a large order of fries. And more ketchup.


Ketchup is central to American cuisine, so central it really ought to be a food group unto itself. Yet, like many things American, ketchup is foreign in origin. The term probably comes to the English language from Chinese, the Amoy dialect, “koechiap,” meaning “brine of fish.” Yum. The British, a poetic people, call it “tomato sauce,” while the Australian slang term for it is “dead horse.”

Ketchup both brings us together and divides us. We can’t agree, for example, on its spelling. When I got serious about ketchup and started writing this piece, I used the admittedly highbrow “catsup.” After a survey of the literature on the subject, I searched my document and replaced catsup with ketchup. But I’m still in a dither. On March 11, 2009, on answerbag.com, a male person named “Skel1977” said with total confidence, “Catsup is the correct term.” That’s a direct quote. In 1755, in one of his Panegyricks, Jonathon Swift wrote “catsup.” Merriam-Webster reports that Del Monte uses catsup, whereas Heinz and Hunts insist on ketchup; J.D. Salinger, catsup; Eudora Welty and Norman Mailer ketchup; Hemingway and Faulkner, those titans, dare to be different, catchup.

Joy has many names, and variant spellings.

Ten years or so ago, my wife and I redid our kitchen. This was before Mcdonalds’ technological breakthrough. Had we waited, our house could have been the first on the block to have a ketchup tap in the kitchen counter, right there next to the soap dispenser. Godliness next to cleanliness. Could have, but wouldn’t have. To my wife, ketchup, whatever the spelling, is a vile substance, an untouchable comestible. The look of it, the smell of it (brine of fish!) is more than she can take.

Ketchup packet

For all of its potential to give pleasure, so much madness has been associated with ketchup. They fixed the bottle, finally. No more idiotic bashing to force a goolup of ketchup onto your hashbrowns or burger. Next, our best minds need to turn their attention to the little ketchup pouch, a fiendish invention. Ketchup is good. I have faith that it will only get better.

Go to McDonalds. Try the tap. You’ll be lovin’ it.

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