The chef Jose Andres says that it’s time for America to face a hard truth, one that all of Alice Waters’ goat cheese salads and Thomas Keller’s fried chicken cannot change.
“Everyone else in the world still thinks of American food as ketchup,” said Andres, who was born in Spain but has been living and cooking in Washington for 20 years.
He said that European colleagues still tease him about finding success here, among diners whose palates are corrupted by ketchup. The low prestige of ketchup hits Andres hard.
Now he is on a quest for redemption. He and a few other chefs and entrepreneurs are challenging the hegemony of the red, corn-syrup-sweetened product.
“It is time to embrace and celebrate ketchup, not be ashamed of it,” he said.
And so his new pop-up restaurant, America Eats Tavern, has a separate menu of traditional ketchups, made from local and foraged ingredients and served on everything from fried chicken to bison steak to hot dogs. (Some, it should be noted, consider ketchup on hot dogs an abomination.)
The restaurant opened in June in the space that formerly housed Cafe Atlantico, and grew from an exhibition at the nearby National Archives that runs through January. What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam? illustrates the history of government influence on the American diet, from handwritten rations for Revolutionary War soldiers (500g of beef and bread per day) to the ill-starred 1981 proposal by the US Department of Agriculture to reclassify ketchup as a vegetable in federal school-lunch programs.
Last week, America Eats Tavern had eight ketchups on the menu and still more fermenting in the mind of Jorge Luis Hernandez, who leads Andres’ culinary research team. Hernandez said that in searching the archives, the team found dozens of ketchup recipes in tomes like Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book (1846) and The Virginia Housewife (1824).
“Today we think of ketchup as just one thing: Heinz, or Hunt’s, for those of us who grew up in the South,” he said.
But over the years, the term has been used for a variety of strongly seasoned condiments.
“We started making whortleberry and barberry and oyster ketchup from the original recipes,” Hernandez said, “and we were shocked by how diverse and modern the flavors were.” Indeed, the tart-sweet balance of the fruit ketchups, and the cold brininess of the oyster version (fresh oysters blended into a base of wine, butter, shallots and mace) could have come out of any of the professional kitchens in France where Andres first trained as a chef.
Some of the ketchups were red (cherry and spiceberry), one was made from tomatoes (yellow, from the greenmarket outside the restaurant’s door) and two (oyster and anchovy) were brightly fishy. They tasted of spices and fruit, of peppercorns and vinegar, but not particularly like the syrupy tomato blast that has come to represent America’s primary contribution to world cuisine (whether Americans like it or not).
“Why, as a society, have we let this diversity go away?” Andres lamented via cellphone from Spain — where, he said, it would be unthinkable to find just one version of a classic sauce like romesco. “Why would we go from a rainbow to black and white?”
American foodies and chefs generally dismiss ketchup, deeming it fit only for children and burgers.
The apotheosis of ketchup shame is the gastropub Father’s Office in Santa Monica, outside Los Angeles, a serious burger town where condiments, especially mayonnaise, are deeply loved. The chef Sang Yoon’s Office Burger, and its salty-sweet topping of bacon and caramelized onions, is the centerpiece of his menu. Yet since opening in 2000, he has refused to serve ketchup with it, or with anything else in the restaurant.