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Archive for the ‘thoughts’ Category

Ketchup

I love both the articles and the recipes at Chow.com. Ran across this one on ketchup this afternoon, and got to thinking about ketchup and its place in American cuisine. There are some people who don’t *like* ketchup, but we’ve all had it, we all know what it is, and we all know it can double as fake blood in an English class reenactment of a scene from Dracula in a pinch.

I did have to admit to myself while I was reading this article that given the choice, I am partial to Heinz. I try to grocery shop conscientiously and save a few cents here or there when I can by buying store brands, but I can’t bring myself to buy store brand ketchup. I can’t do it. And thankfully, Jim doesn’t fault me for it. I’m the one who eats the most ketchup anyway, so I might as well get the brand I prefer. I really do think I could pick Heinz out in a blind taste test.

Then again, if a chef offers homemade ketchup with the entree I order at their restaurant, I’m going to enjoy it, and I’m not going to ask for Heinz. Mostly because I am not Malcolm Gladwell, but also because I recognize and respect that some foods just have places they belong. Heinz belongs at cookouts and quick food joints, at family barbeques and at American chain restaurants. If I’ve chosen to eat at the kind of place that bothers to make its own tomato-based condiment, I’m going to give it an honest try.

I know I’ve had the conversation, off-line, about enjoying foods in their natural habitat. Yes, I know that your steak would taste divine with a shaving of truffle, but we’re eating at a chain family-style restaurant, and that isn’t how they prepare their steak here. So just enjoy your simple steak seasoned with salt and just enough black pepper. Respect what the kitchen does instead of carping about what they haven’t done. If you’ve been served something truly heinous, fine, that’s one thing, but if you meal is good and you’ve been given no reason to complain about it, then don’t.

I know, I got off on a little tangent there. What it comes down to is that I love mass-produced ketchup on my grilled hamburgers and my fast-food French fries, but I also respect the kitchens who go the extra mile to offer me something made from scratch. What about you? Would you ask for Heinz no matter how chic the restaurant? Or do you think that every food has its place, and every place has its food?

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Maybe it was a form of culinary backlash from spending the long holiday weekend in Pennsylvania, where I wrestled with all sorts of strange, Pennsylvanian eating habits: sauerkraut, three bean salad, a weird steak sauce that seemed more like A1 and teriyaki sauce had offspring, potato rolls, dried chipped beef, cheesesteaks, and do-not-let-us-forget apple, cherry, and pecan pies from Amish country. Maybe I’m just tired today, from putting a dinner party together last night, from marinading a leg of lamb for two days, from being woken up at 3 AM by the thunder-and-hail-storm that erupted in our bedroom this morning. Maybe I was just tired, and the strange, stormy weather had me yearning for comfort food.

It’s Saturday, said a voice in the back of my mind while I was waiting on a deli order at the grocery store. Pick up some baked beans and brown bread to go with those hot dogs you’re getting. So while Jim was elsewhere in the store, I turned idly down the aisle where cans of baked beans and brown bread cuddle cozily together (the way it should be) and deposited one can of each in my cart.

Once we were home, in a state of near-meditation I coaxed the bread from its can, slicing, buttering, and reassembling it, wrapping it in tin foil and sliding it in to a low oven to steam itself back to life. When the bread was ten minutes from done, I put a saucepan of Boston-style baked beans (extra molasses) on the stovetop; and when the bread was just a few minutes from done, I put two big beef franks in the microwave, between two plates, to steam into doneness themselves.

Jim came in to the kitchen when I said dinner was just 5 or 6 minutes away. “Time to turn on the grill?”

“No.”

“No? But, hot dogs?”

“Not grilled.”

“Hmmm.” Immediate suspicion. He surveyed the bubbling pot of beans, the empty can of brown bread, the smell from the microwave. “Can I have sauerkraut?” So we microwaved a small bowl of sauerkraut too. He got out two hot dog buns but I put mine back — there was no room for a hot dog bun in my worldview this meal.

So we sat down at the dinner table and I assembled my plate while he assembled his hot dog, on a bun, with sauerkraut: two slices of ridiculously buttery brown bread, one of which was an end piece, which I always covet; a cut-up hot dog; and enough baked beans so the hot dog didn’t look too lonely. I flipped the cap off the ketchup bottle and went to town, artfully drizzling a thin trail of ketchup across my hot dogs and my beans. Jim laughed. “You look like you’re 7 years old again.” Slightly injured from being made fun of, I speared a hot dog slice and swiped it through the baked beans; and then, as I chewed, I closed my eyes and was briefly transported to another place: It’s New England, it’s summer, I’m just a hop skip and jump from the bay, it’s humid and it wants to storm out, it’s Saturday, and I’m having a hot dog, baked beans, and brown bread for supper.

Jim laughed again, but it was an indulgent laugh. You can take the girl out of Maine, but it doesn’t seem you can ever take the Maine out of the girl.

I was texting my mom as I did up the bread and waited to put on the beans, and said, “Does this mean my inner New Englander is trying to assert dominance and take over the rest of me?” No, she replied, it’s that part of me I got from my grandfather, who grew up in poor, rural Maine, the absurdly funny part, which also happens to believe that hot dogs, baked beans, and brown bread are the only proper Saturday night dinner in the world. It’s a culinary tradition firmly rooted in Maine culture that goes back to the Puritans as surely as I do. It’s truly in my DNA.

And I’m not the only one. You can read one man’s reflections on the traditional Maine bean supper here, at the Maine Farmhouse Journal. I don’t think I’ll ever get Jim to a proper bean supper, or convince him that this should be what we eat every Saturday night for the rest of our lives, but it seems that as long as there’s a little bit of sauerkraut on the table for his inner Pennsylvania Dutchman, my inner Mainer can come out to play once in a while.

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