I love ketchup. I consider it to be the sauce of sauces, the ultimate thing to have on morning scrambled eggs, “one sauce to rule them all,” the sine qua non of condiments. I like ketchup so much that I have been accused of putting it on ice cream, so much so that once I tried it, and it is not something that I would do again. I will, however, put ketchup on various other things with great pleasure. I even have a T-shirt that says “I put ketchup on my ketchup”.
Follow me down to find out the latest startling development.
My love affair with ketchup began when I was about 6 years old. I was then living in Europe, and I went to Austria one summer to visit relatives. There was a mysterious dark red sauce in a bottle, and it was doled out like liquid gold. Once I tasted it, I was immediately hooked. It had an incomparable flavor, like nothing that I had tasted up to that time. I was an immediate convert; Like Saul getting struck down on the road to Damascus, I had found religion. And this, mind you, even though I had grown up in Italy and was surrounded by tomato products of every type, the supreme example of which was, of course,”Sugo” which in Italian literally means “juice”, but in reality means that wonderful Tomato Sauce which, with Spaghetti and Parmesan cheese, forms the Holy Trinity. Oh, you think that it’s THAT OTHER Trinity, do you? You’re obviously not Italian.
When I came to live in the United States at age 8 I encountered American ketchup, typified by Heintz, the commercial benchmark for ketchup. To my delight, it was not a treasure to be locked up and doled out drop by drop, but a common food that could even be found in the most ordinary eateries. I was very happy, although somewhere in the back of my mind I remembered the incomparable bliss of that particular ketchup that I had in Austria so many years ago. My memory is extremely good, and my memory for tastes is so good that I have been known to reconstruct secret sauces so perfectly that people could not tell the difference between my sauce and a highly secret sauce for O-mizu-taki perfected in a now defunct restaurant in San Francisco called Mingei-ya, or the famous garlic sauce served in Middle Eastern restaurants, which took me a whole 3 tries before I replicated it successfully. I remember tasting Chimichurri and immediately being inspired to replicate it, giving rise to a whole tradition of green sauces for which I have become rightly famous.
How famous do you think I have become? Just to give you an example, I made a couple of dips, one red and one green, for a picnic that I went to, and I put them on the table without saying anything. They sat there forlornly for a little while until a few people tasted them, and then the word spread and I had to smile as the level of the sauces in the bowls went down precipitously, people using every possible dipping vehicle to vacuum the sauces at record speed.
And yet, even with my newfound fame, even with 3 foodie daughters, one of which is even an extremely advanced professional cook, something eluded me. That mysterious taste, that golden moment over 60 years ago when I first tasted the supreme red nectar seemed to elude me, even as I did not know what I was missing.
3 months ago, in the throes of the fermenting kick that I have been on for a few years now, I found a recipe for fermented ketchup. I tried it out, and it was very good; as good as any ketchup I have ever tasted, even better than as Heinz. Still, it didn’t have that mysterious je-ne-sais-quoi, that elusive taste than I remembered… Until yesterday. Pulling out a jar of my homemade fermented ketchup from the refrigerator, which I had fermented over a month ago and then put in the refrigerator, I tasted it, and in a blinding moment of ecstasy realized that I had at last found, or perhaps rediscovered, that incredible taste. The ketchup that I had allowed to ferment for a week or so had continued to ferment in the refrigerator, albeit more slowly, and had finally reached that peak of perfection where the sourness was generated not from vinegar, but from actual fermentation. There was a little electricity on the tongue, that characteristic gentle bite that comes from fermentation, and it had imbued the ketchup with the same mythic quality that I had tasted when I was 6 years old. In a second of supreme joy and amazed surprise, I recognized it immediately.
Now you must know that I had elevated Heinz ketchup to the supreme pinnacle that can only be honored with of the title of “sauce of sauces”, but what I tasted yesterday reduced Heinz ketchup to a distant contender. There was absolutely no question that this was an absolutely superior article, the summum bonum of that world of sauces that is lumped under the name “Ketchup”. Goodbye, Del Monte, Heinz, all of the so-called “natural” bottled red sauces, and any organic hippie versions of The Sauce Which Is Red. I have found the holy Grail of ketchup as last. And it is good.