Well Sauced

President Richard Nixon liked a bowl of cottage cheese and ketchup. Some biographers have noted that he also ate cottage cheese with pepper, and fruit, which is actually quite tasty. My grandmother Rose was a fan of cottage cheese and melon, especially cantaloupe. I’ve tried it: the sweetness of the melon blends well with the salty, slightly bitter cream of the cottage cheese.

Ketchup is another matter. Originally a fish sauce, it was brought to this country two centuries ago and did wonders for the fortunes of the H.J. Heinz Company, which trademarked their version–still the most popular in the United States–as “catsup.” The word derives from Asia, though some think it could be from a European derivation of an Asian expression meaning “food with sauce.”

Most Americans don’t think of ketchup as a sauce. Supermarkets put it in a section called condiments. These include a famous French sauce, dijonaise, which most of us know as mustard.

Condiments tend not to be considered food, though President Ronald Reagan, while promoting shameful legislation that would have reduced funding for public school lunches, once called ketchup a vegetable, presumably because its red color comes from tomatoes, which were legally classed a “fruit” in an infamous New York City taxation case.

You can make a ketchup with sweet red peppers, but the kind I like to dump on my hamburger uses a tomato,  which, a few centuries ago, was thought to be a dangerous aphrodisiac.

Did ketchup ever compete with music as the “food of love”? I doubt it. Sauces have had a more practical function over the long history of cuisine: they disguised the taste of spoiled, or ineptly prepared food. My first cooking teacher told me that if I ever burned an omelet, I should cover the dark patches with a tomato sauce.

Unless you’re a former president, ketchup, soy sauce, tamari, mustard, Tobasco, numerous salsas, Worcestershire, steak sauce, barbecue sauce, and mayonnaise (a sauce invented as a salad dressing on the Mediterranean island of Minorca, near the town of Mihon, to appease the finicky palate of the famed French lover, Armand De Vignerot du Plessis, inspiration for the serial seducer Valmont in Dangerous Liasons ) are not considered nutritionally complete to constitute a meal (though egg-based mayonnaise has enough fat and protein to do the job). As condiments, they are added to our food to enhance it (veal with Cumberland sauce, roast turkey with “brown” gravy, Cheese-wiz on sauteed sirloin shavings and onions on an Italian roll becomes the famous Philadelphia cheesesteak), bind contrary flavors (Hollandaise on a poached egg and grilled ham becomes Eggs Benedict, a bechemel in chicken pot pie brings the vegetables and chicken pieces into a yummy harmony), disguise flaws (my first cooking teacher advised me to cover the brown spots on an overcooked omelet with tomato sauce), add color, texture, keep food from drying out or, in the case of ketchup and mustard combo on a fast food hamburger, give bland chunk of coagulated beef a hot-sweet-and-sour zing.

Some sauces dominate a dish, as in chicken dijonaise, a favorite in my youthful days at the only restaurant in Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown whose menu I could afford, or steak Bearnaise, which I learned to make before I ordered it in a restaurant. Beef stroganoff uses a sour cream sauce. Lobster soong, a blow-out dish that my parents enjoyed, puts chunks of lobster in an egg sauce.

And how many of us can forget the bliss of sweet-and-sour, teriyaki and barbeque? Would we have eaten so much, so quickly, without the sauce?

Which makes me ask, to what extent do we taste the sauce, that is, indulge our desire for pleasure, in our lives, instead of eating only what we need to slake our hunger? With so many new hamburger chains appearing offering “unlimited” toppings, how often have we decided to forgo the additives and merely taste the meat?

How important is it that we be pleased with what we consume (and that act of consumption be pleasant)? To what extent is our identity–who we think we are (as well as who or what others want us to be)–is shaped by the frequency, variety and quality of pleasures we indulge?

Why do we feel guilty, or shameful, when we over indulge (like binge-watching that steamed TV series), even if what we’ve done hasn’t endangered or hurt anyone?

And, to adapt a metaphor, how often do we wish we had a some kind of metaphorical sauce to cover up, add flavor,or make pleasurable what has become a dull chore? So many develop addictions and compulsive illnesses to these so-called sauces.

One good thing I’ve learned about writing. You have days when a cup of coffee, a morning walk, a long run, a fancy quotation, a smile from your muse (to whom I happen to be married) or a tune from your favorite musician will make the words flow. Then you have days when the nothing works.

I must be thankful that, beyond a morning cup of joe and tendency to get lost in computer solitaire, I’m not an addict. I’m not waiting for some substance to make my life livable.

Such thoughts went through my head as I wolfed down a grilled brisket burger–with ketchup on a toasted potato flour bun–and tried to watch on Netflix (or was it Amazon Prime?) a thriller series that, according to the reviews, had pleased most people. While I noted good production values and competent acting, I found that the series was so formulaic that I could predict when danger would strike? Why was such obvious manipulation unpleasant for me?

I remember talking to a mild-mannered, amiable fellow who was a “super” professional wrestling fan. He said he enjoyed watching the outrageous theatrical antics because he liked being fooled. I enjoy roller coaster rides and live performances of magic for the same reason. I watch  “special effects” films in which armies of computer technicians spent months in front of their keyboards so I can pretend that a spaceship is zooming away.

And yet, I don’t like politicians and authority figures lying to me. I don’t play poker because I’d rather not be fooled when my prestige and money is on the table. Perhaps I see myself as a person who so powerfully doesn’t want to be fooled, that he will only condone being fooled in ways in which he knows he’s being fooled, or doesn’t care if he’s fooled or not?

I finished that brisket burger too quickly. Another sat on the tray, just waiting to be eaten. Did my body need two burgers in one night? Was I that hungry?

No. But I just had to taste that burger–without the ketchup.

I took one bite and imagined my ancestors huddling together on a dark night, roasting pieces o’ beast on an open fire. Someone threw a hunk to me and put it my mouth as my ancestors turned to me and waited for my judgement.

“Needs ketchup,” I said.




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