Covering fries, scooped up in onion rings, drenching my morning eggs, used as generously as salt—I have a problem with Heinz Tomato Ketchup. It’s been a staple in my parents’ fridge since I first started looking in it. I have memories of my mother yelling at me when I was three for licking it out of the bottle. I would open the fridge myself using a tea towel that was always on the door and pull with all of my three-year-old self. This often ended with me face-planting on the kitchen floor.
When I was three and a half, my family moved to South Africa. The three years that we lived there, I had a similar experience to Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight’s Eloise. Everything in the kitchen at the Cathcart Arms in Grahamstown, South Africa, was available to me. I forget what it was exactly because it was so horrible but the first time I tasted the South African Heinz Tomato Ketchup, I wanted to cry. It was absolutely disgusting. It tasted like someone took a perfectly good condiment and mixed it with syrup. It was sweet and runny and the color was off. I went to my mother and explained that this abomination I had discovered in the kitchen needed to go. Recently, I learned the crap they had in South Africa came in from the factories in the United Kingdom, a place where they enjoy other absolutely delicious, sweet foods, such as mint jelly slathered on their lamb.
About a month or so before my fifth birthday, my parents went on a long weekend trip to Durban and left me with a friend. They told me good girls get presents and I should be good for Debbie. When they got back, I pestered them for my gift. The only response I got was a “good girls wait and get good gifts.” It turns out they heard from some of our American friend that you could buy real Heinz ketchup with real Allegheny River water in it if you drove the five hundred–odd miles to Durban. And for me they went.
For my birthday, my parents had rented two donkey carts (that are solely used for the transportation of goods to market and the like, never for small children) and covered them with streamers similarly to the way one could cover a broken arm with plaster. My entire preschool then rode in them down the main rode in Grahmstown, singing “Tina, tina abantwana esikolo Shaw Hall” in Xhosa, or “we are the children of the school Shaw Hall.” I thought, “This has been the best birthday ever, and there was no way that it could get any better.” When we got home, I was exhausted. It had been a long day and all I wanted to do was go to sleep. My parents came into my room and handed me the best thing I have ever seen on side of the Atlantic. A red glass bottle with a white lid and a keystone shaped label and that “57” placed at just the right spot so when you hit it just right all the vinegary, bitter, salty goodness can come rushing out and onto your chips to be enjoyed like a cold shower in the middle of summer. The bottle they brought back and gave me for my birthday went everywhere with me.
What I had was the real deal. I made everyone at the hotel try it, side by side with their “ketchup.” I would go up to one of the maids during her shifts cleaning the large Victorian styled rooms with high ceilings, chandeliers, that had been both a fort and a house of refuge wars in the 1830’s. I had a plate with the “good stuff” on one side and the imposter on the other. In the middle I had an ample amount of chips (remember, South Africa was colonized by the English; chips equal french fries) for them to try the two Heinzes.
Everyone agreed with the cute little blond American girl that would not let them return to their work unless they saw the error of their people’s ways. I thought it was a perfectly valid experiment, with a completely bias examiner. I finished the over-100 servings in a week. The next time my parent went they brought back a case. I slowed down my consumption at that point so I would not need to be without god’s gift to spuds for prolonged periods of time.
In 2000, after we had been back in the U.S. for five years and I had grown accustomed to easy access to the good stuff, Heinz introduced by far the second-worst idea ever, second only to the UK ketchup: green ketchup—excuse me, “Blastin’ Green” ketchup. The idea was simple: let’s make ketchup fun. We would put it into a new bottle that would allow for easier squirting and because the opening is smaller it can be used to create all types of fun designs, and make it more readily available then regular ketchup. Only problem is I was ten and were having dinner at Barb, my mother’s friend’s house. She ran out of the good old-fashioned red stuff and she was making meatloaf. Barb must have felt like the Frankenstein’s creator when she saw what she had created. I was sitting at the dining room table wondering why the forks in their set only had three tines. I was forcefully removed from my delusions of red-haired mermaids using them to brush their hair to a loud “Oh, fuck, what have I done” from Barb.
Meatloaf is one of the wonderful grown-up uses for ketchup. It makes the loaf that great smoked color without all the trouble. But when you use green ketchup, it looks like you took diarrhea, mixed it with mud, and molded it into meatloaf shape. The green turns a horrible green brown. is freakishly similar to fecal matter. Now don’t get me wrong, if you were blindfolded and had no idea what you were getting into, it was fine. No problem! But then once you took off the blindfold and got a look at what the hell it was you were eating, you had to immediately run (not walk quickly, people) to the bathroom to remove the vile image from your mind and stomach. I went to bed with an empty stomach that night with zero appetite the next couple of days.
Heinz got in over their head. They sold as much as they anticipated selling in the first year in the first ninety days. They got carried away. Blastin’ Green, Funky Purple, and the limited rainbow-colored mystery bottles were fun and novelties. We didn’t know, until we squirted it on our eggs, or fries, whether we got pink, orange or teal. But the end was in sight when they introduced the “Stellar Blue” in 2003. And by 2006, the colored ketchup was now difficult to find on the grocery stores. And thankfully so.
Heinz Tomato Ketchup was back to its proper color and all was well with breakfast.
Moving out of your parents’ house to move into a dorm is difficult for many. For me I gave up the security in knowing there would always be a 101-ounce “fridge door fit” container of Heinz Tomato Ketchup in the fridge, and at least one more twin pack in the outside pantry. I have never been down a condiment aisle in the City of Pittsburgh and seen any type of Ketchup other than Heinz, its more health conscious awkward cousins, and the generic store brand. Even in Pittsburgh’s “Giant Igls” the generic brand is actually bottled by Heinz.
Because of this fact, it never occurred to me that in Greensburg, not forty-five minutes away from Pittsburgh, the school cafeteria would be bold enough to put out an economy sized red pump with no label on it. This lack of label disturbed me greatly. Carrying Heinz products, similarly to being a product untested on animals or contains no trans fats, is something most companies are proud of. They display it in large letters with contrasting colors, so all consumers know it’s good stuff. I knew better than to ask the workers what it was they filled the container with. No one this close to Pittsburgh would ever admit to using a non-Heinz product.
This naked container was the charlatan at my dinner party. First she would start off with a few casual jokes to make everyone feel comfortable, and then she would go in for the kill. She will ruin your taste buds so your food is no longer complemented by the other delectable on your plate, such as institutional chicken patties and massively under-salted potato wedges. To avoid confrontation with this potential imposter, I left her off of the guest list to my plate. I called my mom the first day I meet the charlatan. “…and I just can’t stand to even look at her on other peoples plates.” I finished, while sobbing the same way I did when my first boyfriend in middle school broke up with me.
“Nia, do you understand what the problem is here?”
“Yeah! There’s a freakin’ doppelgänger in my cafeteria!”
“No, Nia, the issue is that you are personifying a condiment. If “she” bothers you enough to make this much of an uproar then just bring your own bottle.”
So that’s what I do. Now whenever I go to the caf, we have a polite understanding. She gets no part of my plate and I don’t blow her cover.
I am also very weary of restaurants that still have glass Heinz containers, especially when the labels are starting to curl around the edges. The glass bottles are ridiculously more expensive than the newer plastic ones. They also have one huge difference; the lids come all the way off to allow them to be refilled with whatever they want to use. Not cool. You can always spot a real Pittsburgh Girl when she pulls out a small container of Ketchup from her purse in these situations. I get strange looks, but I’m not a gambler. I’m not going to play roulette with my hard-earned money, and I’m not going to play it with my mouth.