‘A Skeptic Tries’ is a series examining our food resistances and what happens when we try them anyway. Next up, writer Sharrona Pearl rediscovers the simple pleasures of ketchup.
I didn’t always hate ketchup. As a kid, I squirted it with abandon, drowning my French fries and hot dogs in red puddles. The slimy condiment was fun to eat and I didn’t care that it masked the flavor of everything it touched. In a way, that was the point. But there’s a dramatic divide in my life when it comes to ketchup: Before, when its grossness was kind of fun, and After, when all I could think of when I looked at it, or smelled it, or even imagined it, was blood. Menstrual blood, to be exact.
The year was 1990. I was 13 and spending eight weeks at Camp Ramah in Ontario, Canada. Along with the 11 girls in my cabin, I decided to go bunk-hopping late at night—through the wooded ravine behind our hill to the boys’ camp. Our motive was simple: vengeance. Our mechanism: mess. And our medium: ketchup, something all summer camps have in abundance.
The week before, while we were away on an overnight camping trip, the boys had gone on an infamous panty raid, stealing our underwear and stringing it up on their outdoor laundry line for everyone to see. Now they were away on their camping trip. We had to retaliate and we wanted to show them, in as direct a way as possible, exactly why 13-year-old girls need their underwear.
Given that our nervous mothers had sent us with enough extra tampons and menstrual pads to supply an entire Lilith Fair, we had plenty to work with. Armed with our supplies, we donned our stealth black sweatpants, crawled across the field, and snuck into the boys’ cabins—where we proceeded to go to town. Not only did we soak the tampons and pads in ketchup, we squirted it. We slathered it. We sprayed it until each bunk looked like its own crime scene. It was vile, disgusting, and absolutely adolescent. And I could never look at ketchup the same way again. What was once a sauce had become a secretion.
My ketchup-free life didn’t feel like any kind of sacrifice. I became a vegetarian at 13 (that same summer, incidentally), and so my only grilling options were pre-cooked tofu dogs or hard, flat, greige-colored rounds masqueraded as “veggie burgers.” Not even ketchup was going to bring them back from bland oblivion. And the rest of my veg-heavy meals rarely needed the condiment. I dipped my French fries in mayonnaise. I enjoyed tomato sauce (only guilty by association) atop spaghetti. Mustard was my grilled cheeses’ BFF.
Then, 30 years later, the Impossible (burger) happened. By 2018, the vegetarian alternatives I fed my own family had come a long way—they were no longer sad substitutions but truly delicious options that even meat lovers were buying into. I began to crave the actual taste of veggie burgers and dogs as much as the nostalgic ritual. I wasn’t just slapping a misc. disc between the much more appealing bun anymore, but savoring the flavors.