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I was having a business lunch recently where the discussion got sidetracked and we ended up talking a lot about ketchup. It all started when my companion's order was served. He looked at his French fries, then at the bottle of ketchup on the table and said: “You know, I never touch ketchup when I'm in a restaurant.”
“How come?” I said.
He told me a story about being in a restaurant Down East years back and watching a drunk who had come into the restaurant and ordered three hot dogs with everything to go. It was one of those places, he said, where the staff had its own way of announcing a customer's order. “Three dogs - drag 'um through the garden and put wheels on 'um,” was how the drunk's order went to the cooks.
When the dogs on wheels were placed before the drunk, he opened the container to check on them. He discovered that the cook had neglected the ketchup, so he grabbed a bottle of it from the counter and slathered a generous amount on to his dogs. As he put the cap back on the bottle he noticed some ketchup oozing down the side so he held the bottle to his mouth and proceeded to clean it up with his tongue. He then capped the bottle, placed it back on the counter, picked up his dogs and left.
Watching this less-than-hygienic act from a nearby booth my businessman decided right then and there never to touch a ketchup bottle in a restaurant again and he never had. He said he assumed that now that I knew the story, I probably wouldn't touch a bottle of restaurant ketchup again, either.
I told him it was a good story, but informed him that I seldom touch ketchup regardless of where it's located. I went on to explain that I was descended from Nova Scotia stock and we used vinegar on our fries or “chips.”
The businessman said he now carries his own personal ketchup with him at all times, and he showed me several bottles right there in his briefcase. There was a mesquite ketchup from Texas, a desert rose cactus ketchup, a Jamaican jerk ketchup and a bottle of Hurd Orchard's blueberry ketchup from upstate New York.
When I remarked to my that the drunk had sure changed his life, he agreed, and told me it has launched him on a ketchup crusade, really, over the years, which included him researching the history of the condiment.
While sailing in the Far East back in the late 1600s, Europeans explorers were introduced to a strong-tasting, briny fish sauce that the people there called “kee-chap” or “kee-siap.” This concoction was made of pickled fish and spices but no tomatoes. And it's no wonder. For a long time, people were leery of the tasty tomato because they thought it was poisonous. It was Thomas Jefferson who helped dispel that myth by growing tomatos in commercial quantities at Monticello and convincing people to eat them.
So, folks right here in New England began putting tomatoes in their own “kee-siap,” which of course became known throughout the country as “ketchup.”
Despite the businessman's enthusiasm and fascinating story about his beloved ketchup, I told him I'd probably continue to put vinegar on my fries. I'm just keeping my fingers crossed he doesn't come up with a story about a drunk and vinegar.
John McDonald is a humorist and storyteller who performs regularly
throughout New England. John’s e-mail address is mainestoryteller@yahoo.com.
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