Ketchup vs. Catsup: Why Heinz Is Irreplaceable

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Minetta Tavern serves Heinz, but Cherche Midi opts for fancy-ass ketchup.
Minetta Tavern serves Heinz, but Cherche Midi opts for fancy-ass ketchup. Photo: Shutterstock

At Cherche Midi, Keith McNally’s latest restaurant, the French fries are truly outstanding. They retain all the best attributes of fast-food fries — uniformly golden, very thin, perfectly crispy — while still managing to feel handmade. They nail the sweet spot on the spectrum between elegant, old-school New York dining, and the generic greasy drive-through that you frequented as a teenager. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the ketchup that arrives, in a small, nondescript ceramic cup, with the fries. Is it Heinz? No, it’s darker than it should be, and not nearly smooth enough. There’s too much spice, not enough sweetness. It is fancy-ass ketchup, and all it does is make you wonder why you can’t just have Heinz — like at McNally’s other restaurants, Minetta Tavern and Balthazar.

Minetta Tavern serves Heinz, but Cherche Midi opts for fancy-ass ketchup.
Minetta Tavern serves Heinz, but Cherche Midi opts for fancy-ass ketchup. Photo: Shutterstock

Fortunately, Heinz remains the go-to brand at most restaurants, even in establishments like the NoMad Bar, the Dutch, and, surprisingly, Gramercy Tavern, a place otherwise wholly committed to a fully homemade ethos. Even at Daniel, where the seven-course tasting menu costs $220, Heinz is what arrives if a guest requests ketchup. When I called up Minetta Tavern chef William Brasile, he told me, "When customers have strong connections to a product like that, you have to respect it, no matter what your beliefs are," he says. "I don’t like it when Heinz is not offered. And I do prefer the taste."

So why, after 138 years, in an era when practically every food gets an artisanal makeover, has no ketchup competitor even come close to replicating Heinz’s success? Why is it that Heinz, and only Heinz, is what we not only love, but what we demand with every French fry we eat?

Because as Malcolm Gladwell once explained, Heinz doesn’t just taste good, or even great. It tastes objectively perfect:

When Heinz moved to ripe tomatoes and increased the percentage of tomato solids, he made ketchup, first and foremost, a potent source of umami. Then he dramatically increased the concentration of vinegar, so that his ketchup had twice the acidity of most other ketchups; now ketchup was sour, another of the fundamental tastes. The post-benzoate ketchups also doubled the concentration of sugar — so now ketchup was also sweet — and all along ketchup had been salty and bitter. These are not trivial issues.

[…]

Salt and sugar and umami are primal signals about the food we are eating — about how dense it is in calories, for example, or, in the case of umami, about the presence of proteins and amino acids. What Heinz had done was come up with a condiment that pushed all five of these primal buttons. The taste of Heinz’s ketchup began at the tip of the tongue, where our receptors for sweet and salty first appear, moved along the sides, where sour notes seem the strongest, then hit the back of the tongue, for umami and bitter, in one long crescendo.

Fortunately, Heinz remains the go-to brand at most restaurants, even in establishments like the NoMad Bar, the Dutch, and, surprisingly, Gramercy Tavern, a place otherwise wholly committed to a fully homemade ethos. Even at Daniel, where the seven-course tasting menu costs $220, Heinz is what arrives if a guest requests ketchup. When I called up Minetta Tavern chef William Brasile, he told me, "When customers have strong connections to a product like that, you have to respect it, no matter what your beliefs are," he says. "I don’t like it when Heinz is not offered. And I do prefer the taste."

So why, after 138 years, in an era when practically every food gets an artisanal makeover, has no ketchup competitor even come close to replicating Heinz’s success? Why is it that Heinz, and only Heinz, is what we not only love, but what we demand with every French fry we eat?

Because as Malcolm Gladwell once explained, Heinz doesn’t just taste good, or even great. It tastes objectively perfect:

Brasile reveals that at Minetta Tavern, McNally actually spends more money to ceremoniously present Heinz in glass bottles. "It costs us more to put that bottle on the table, as opposed to using bulk Heinz," he says. "You may have noticed that the other condiments are served in ceramic cups, but there’s a glass bottle of Heinz. I think that it allows people to relax into their meals a bit more." He recalls one memorable customer who really let herself go: "We had a woman who wanted to know if she could have black truffles shaved over her Black Label burger. We did it, and charged her a reasonable amount." And then, he says, "She dumped ketchup all over the thing." Even the most refined foods — the most sought-after delicacies and the funkiest dry-aged beef — are no match for the pull of Heinz.