Alibi V.13 No.30 • July 22-28, 2004 

Food for Thought

The Politics of Ketchup

Reagan's vegetable meets the Heinz-Kerry fortune

Ordinarily, ketchup would don its crown as the summer cookout condiment par excellence without any help from the president of the United States (past, present or future).

But lately, our nation's favorite burger and dog topping has gone all political: I remember back in 1981, when Ronald Reagan landed in the Oval Office and promptly declared ketchup a school-lunch vegetable. Political columnists do—and it's a tidbit they resurrected with glee upon Reagan's recent demise. Hey, kids! Choke down an eight-ounce glass of ketchup and get as much Vitamin A as one baby carrot, not to mention more than a day's worth of sodium and nearly 50 grams of sugar! A particularly sound bit of presidential nutrition advice.

And then there's John Kerry. More to the point, there's Teresa Heinz Kerry, heiress to the world's biggest ketchup fortune, who has Republicans merrily pointing fingers at her husband, who is obviously in bed (ahem) with big business. (No matter that the entire Heinz family owns less than 4 percent of the company's stock, and that the ketchup giant's executives and its PAC have given three times as much money to Republicans than Democrats over the past six years, and nothing to Kerry.)

And finally, we have ... "W Ketchup." Yes, some arch-conservative thirtysomething investment bankers recently announced that they have launched a "sweeter, less vinegary" ketchup for those who don't want to support "liberal causes such as Kerry for President" ($12 for four bottles).

We remember simpler times, when ketchup wasn't so complicated. If you were from the Pittsburgh area (like Rob), home of Heinz Hall, Heinz Chapel, Heinz Field and, once upon a time, Heinz ketchup, you ate ... well, what we squeeze on the fries in our house. Heinz. (Rob still feels faintly traitorous buying a different brand, even though Heinz moved its ketchup plants out of the 'Burgh years ago).

For such an unassuming blend of tomatoes, sugar and vinegar, ketchup spawns some rabid partisanship. A co-worker swears Del Monte is the best ("more vinegary," he pronounced it). We could question how different the two brands really are, seeing as how the Heinz and Del Monte corporations executed a $1.1 billion partial merger in 2002. ...

But never mind. It's summertime. Let's all grab a burger and a dog, and try to remember when ketchup was still just ketchup.