Ketchup Conquers All

Have never really fancied tomato ketchup.

Not even as a child. Which is strange when you consider that this red gloopy vinegary substance - whose relationship to the glorious flavor of freshly picked newly ripened tomatoes is one of a very distant cousin - has saved many an obstinate child from starvation. Parents down the ages remake the discovery: Their children's firmly pursed lips open with sudden magic once the despised dish before them is drowned in ketchup.

It is the ultimate flavor-smotherer.

I don't remember my parents trying this solution (a good word for such a gloopy, plashy, schlumpy substance) on me. Their method was the Endurance Test. One of my older brothers remarked on this just the other day: "Remember when they made you chew your meat until you swallowed it?" (There was sympathy in his voice.)

I remembered. And what I remembered above all was the experimental experiential conclusion: that a mouthful of gristly wartime meat, if chewed steadily for half an hour, becomes as unswallowably stringy and bland as a piece of damp string. Still chewing, I would be sent upstairs with the warning that I would not be allowed to stop chewing until I made up my mind to swallow. I'm sure it was all terribly good for my character.

Presumably ketchup was not tried because that was considered bad for my character, if hardly improving for the meat. Would a glop of ketchup have helped? Probably not.

An American friend tells me that two food items she simply could not eat when she was a child (and she still cannot) were liver and beets. When she was about 4 she discovered an answer: While her mother was in the kitchen, she incited her youngest sister, still an infant (and already a beet fancier), to crawl across the table and eat all the beets from the serving dish very quickly. Such ingenuity, while I certainly admire it today, would never have entered my head. Partly because I didn't have a younger sister, and partly because if I'd had such a useful outlet - and even if she had loved me very fondly - she undoubtedly would have refused my pieces of eternally chewed meat-string. And who could blame her?

Another American friend says her childhood food problem was vegetables in general and green beans in particular. She couldn't stand them. Even today if friends serve her green beans she shifts them surreptitiously to what she hopes is an unobserved corner of her plate and hides them under a discarded piece of chicken skin or whatever comes to hand. She remembers her mother making her sit in front of green beans until midnight on one occasion. She wore her mother down that time, and from then on was mainly served, vegetable-wise, raw carrots, cooked corn, or salad consisting of nothing but lettuce. It is fortunate that - like the then 4-1/2-year-old son of a couple I know - she did not decide one day that she was vegetarian. Her diet would have been remarkably dull.

The 4-1/2-year old's Dad was about to have a piece of bacon one day. "Dad," he said, "are you going to eat that? Don't you know they make that stuff out of dead pigs?"

Such disarming truthfulness is hard to fight, and I gather that for some two years after that, rather than make vegetarian meals for one member of the family and meaty meals for the rest, they all became vegetarians. Today they once again enjoy hamburgers without fuss - though the nine-year-old has certain standards of his own when it comes to that staple of American child-fare, peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. His have to be smooth peanut butter only, please, and no jelly, thank you.

Children can be very demanding on the food front, and are often quite surprisingly unadventurous and conservative. None of the adults in my family could understand why it was that every time I was treated to a restaurant meal on my birthday, I always chose the same things. To start I had to have pea soup, preferably with croutons. This was followed - as night follows day - by flounder and chips and peas. Today I would find these choices fearfully predictable and bland. I think it was the appeal of those same qualities that made me like them as a child. They were safe, that was the great thing. Oddly I cannot remember what my chosen "sweet course" was - it may have been lemon mousse. I remember that as an inordinate favorite for many years. At least that had a little piquancy to it.

My wife's brother, while he loved potatoes to distraction, objected strenuously to "real meat." His meat had to be processed and frozen so that when it reached his plate it required hardly any chewing. His own children today eat most things, and the youngest even likes raw and pickled onions. Both items still make my own mellowed adult tongue curl up slightly, so I suspect young Andrew has a great future in some notably courageous and daring walk of life. He probably adores fierce English mustard, too.

But the child I admire most of all is a cousin of the green-beanophobe. He is now an adult and, I gather, remarkably well-adjusted. But back then he was a ketchup freak.

Apparently he had it with everything - and I mean everything. Ketchup sandwiches strike his anti-bean cousin today as not all that odd. Ketchup on scrambled eggs could be interpreted as reasonably unexceptional.

But at ketchup on cornflakes, even his affectionate cousin draws the line.

And when it comes to ketchup milk-shakes, both she - and I - are frankly rendered ...

... speechless.

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