With ketchup

No American gastronome worthy of the name can be unaware of the important epicurean contest currently going on among McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy's.

Which of these modern, gourmet establishments represents the best American cuisine? Who can decide it? It may have to be decided by a panel of chefs from the French Cordon Bleu, because average Americans can no longer recognize food at all, unless it is deep-fried and placed in some sort of paper receptacle.

Even when food can be recognized by sight, many diners cannot recognize it by taste. Products of similar texture, such as fish fillet, chicken, French fries, or hamburger, are not really considered edible until covered with ketchup, or some kind of brown or red sauce, which gives everything a basic, mildly spicy ''food taste,'' widely accepted as ''flavor.''

McDonald's gives the impression it sells the largest quantity. Outside each McDonald's a huge red sign indicates that over 40 billion have been sold, without specifically designating what. The product sold inside, or through a window, is referred to as a ''Mac'' or even a ''Big Mac.'' Such items are served in folded cardboard containers, and the wonders therein are not disclosed until one gets to his seat and opens them.

Allegations that a number of people have inadvertently eaten the box covered with ketchup with the sandwich still inside have not been verified to our satisfaction. There have been no complaints of this nature, so if it has ever happened the consumer was not aware of his mistake.

Burger King suggests that although they may be slightly behind in the quantity sold, they are out ahead in the quality. Parking lot connoisseurs, in Burger King territory, claim that because the meat is cooked over an open flame, rather than fried, it is tastier. Basic ketchup taste notwithstanding.

Wendy's, coming on strong, seems to be a cheerful challenger. It is the one, they have decided, who serves the great, original, old-fashioned, real American hamburger. At least, they tend to call it a hamburger and claim it is more juicy.

Meanwhile chefs at the Ritz, Antoine's, etc., watch all this in horror as a creeping number of their refined patrons ask for ketchup.

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