ketchup, catsup

My beautiful, cultured wife, Aina, has a thing for ketchup. She really loves it. That’s not such a bad thing; I like it too. Unlike her, though, I don’t put it cold on a cheese soufflé hot out of the oven. (I have taken measures to prevent a recurrence of that. Mainly, I don’t make cheese soufflés anymore.)

But let me tell you just how much she loves it. Once, while we were waiting at an airport for a flight, we stopped at a Harvey’s and got a small fries, and she used that little ketchup delivery system to deliver 13 packets of Heinz ketchup to her innards. That’s 13 as in a dozen plus one. I think that was about a half a packet per fry.

I think that might even beat Dennis the Menace. He loves ketchup. You know, Hank Ketcham’s cowlicked cartoon brat. (Yes, Ketcham. Coincidence? Hm.) I loved reading Dennis the Menace when I was a young menace. And I loved ketchup. One of the greatest inventions of my youth was the ketchup-flavoured potato chip. (Even today, nobody beats Old Dutch, which is very hard to get in Toronto.)

It’s such a sturdy, friendly word, ketchup. It has that k like a cowlick or an opening kick; it sails ahead like a ketch, so it can catch up with the food it adorns; it licks its chops with that chup (know Spanish? heard of the chupacabra?). It catches up in your mouth, too, moving in three steps – two stops and an affricate – from back of tongue up to the lips. But should it really be catsup?

Certainly, when I was a kid and first saw the rendition catsup, I assumed, since it was less common and was seen in a reasonably educated context, that it must be somehow better, more correct, classier, what have you. We tend to make those assumptions in English about unexpected spellings and usages. Its novelty appealed to me, that’s for sure. So did the cat part. I love cats (but I’m allergic so I can’t live with them). And of course the sup – which I knew best as a consumption-related word from Andy Capp comic strips (that football-mad alcoholic British runty tough). And now I have my beautiful Aina, who has been known to some of her fellow ice-show skaters as Ainacat, so catsup seems perfectly right. Even if the actual sauce has such a vinegar-and-sugar edge that the k and the ch might seem somehow more in line.

But any bottle of ketchup you buy that calls itself catsup is unlikely to be quite as good as what you’re used to. Let’s be honest: just as there is one brand of Worcestershire sauce and the rest are just wasters, there is one brand of ketchup and the rest are just playing catch-up. And that one brand says ketchup. True, there is a vogue now for house-made ketchups in restaurants, and some of them are quite pleasing in their way. But they also mostly spell it ketchup.

But could they all be wrong? Ha ha ha ha ha. Once the poll of popular usage is in, “right” is generally whatever it has elected. This is why we have an apron and an orange and some peas rather than a napron and a norange and some pease. And only in America, and not much there, do you still see catsup at all. But is catsup more original? If by “original” you mean “someone’s own invention,” perhaps…

Actually, catsup is just a different attempt at transliterating the same thing that ketchup transliterates. Evidence indicates that ketchup is more successful. The source seems to be Malay kecap (sounds kinda like “kay-chop”). In Indonesian cuisine you may see the Dutch-style rendering, ketjap, as in ketjap manis, which is a very nice dark sauce, sweet and viscous and salty, in the neighbourhood of hoisin sauce and soy sauce.

Oh, yes. What we’re used to as ketchup is not the same as what kecap refers to, which is in turn not exactly what its original source referred to – though there is some debate as to what that source was. Something Chinese, most likely; most say an Amoy word for “pickled fish brine”, though it might have been a Cantonese or Hokkien word for “eggplant sauce” or “tomato sauce”.

But even in English there has been non-tomato ketchup. That’s why those bottles of the stuff you buy specify that it’s tomato ketchup – there’s also mushroom ketchup, still made by Geo. Watkins and home-made by anyone with a recipe and the inclination. (There’s also banana ketchup, mainly in the Philippines; it’s like tomato ketchup but made with bananas instead of tomatoes.)

But that Watkins stuff looks kind of runny. And there’s one thing ketchup is famous for: its pseudoplasticity – that is to say, its considerable viscosity that lets up some if you can get it running. It holds together until it avalanches – or spurts. The traditional glass bottles have accentuated this feature for years; change seems not even to have been sought out until quite recently, perhaps because everyone has so loved the humour available from its near-thixotropic spurtling – and the displays of skill required to get it out of the bottle reasonably (so many different techniques, each proudly promulgated as the best). Only squirt bottles, which have their own great potential for redecoration of clothing and environs, have managed to compete.

Surely the lurid red, which makes it extra dangerous in accidents, is part of the appeal. Heinz tried marketing different colours for a few years. It never did catch on. When you whack that bottle and it splats ka-chup on your burger, you expect a tomato massacre.

I think I see a link now… my sweet wife also likes gory crime shows… hmm…

Credit for inspiring me to tackle this topic today goes to Wil Wheaton, @wilw, who undoubtedly did not know he would trigger this sudden flow of information with a brief tweeted question.

One response to “ketchup, catsup

  1. Pingback: kwikluk | Sesquiotica

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