The problem with having old hippies for parents was they never fully parted with the culinary habits of their early twenties. This meant that, a good decade later, we children were forced to partake in the manifold delights of brown bread and earthy vegetables that arrived in cardboard boxes from some obscure wholefood collective. Anything with additives or flavour was verboten, and it was all we could do to gaze enviously at the Monster Munch, Trio bars and SodaStreams our school friends took for granted.
The only staple in my parents’ kitchen cupboard that could not reasonably be classified as a health food was tomato ketchup. The sauce had inexplicably managed to slip through the net, and although its usage was rationed, it was nevertheless permitted, which was something.
I’m now old enough to make my own food choices, and to foist them on to my own children, and still I can’t accept a state of being in which I’m more than a few metres from a ketchup bottle. Fish and chips, scrambled egg, sausages, burgers - none are remotely worth eating unless drowned in the stuff. It frequently counts as one of my children’s five-a-day, a surefire way to get something not beige down my son.
That the rest of the world does not share my love or my dependence seems frankly bizarre. Yet new figures show that global demand for ketchup has dropped off. The decline in appetite for the sauce has been attributed to an unlikely-sounding combination of climate change (record temperatures in Europe have apparently diminished desire for the kind of hot fried food it typically accompanies); a Canada-US trade war; and millennials favouring healthy, fresh products instead.
Yet against this gloomy backdrop there’s a bright red dollop of good news for the sauce’s fate here in Britain, where demand is in fact on the up. Between January and April this year, consumption rose a full 1.5 per cent, which may sound like a modest increase until you consider that it means as a nation we consumed a full 33,000 tonnes in that quarter alone.
I wouldn’t care to estimate how many of those tonnes I was personally responsible for, but it gives me a warm glow to know that up and down the country, we’ve all been relying on the stuff to bring us comfort during turbulent times. After all, what could be more comforting than a sauce that can trace its roots back to the early 19th century, and has stayed with us faithfully as food fads have ebbed and flowed? In every greasy spoon caff and service station, in every burger chain and chippie, there’ll always be a bottle of it there, ready to be shaken (yes, the shaking is obligatory) and squirted.
In the course of my lifetime, we’ve transformed from a country whose national cuisine was a stodgily unappetising joke, to one in which so many of us are food snobs, our cupboards full of walnut pesto, tamarind sauce and myriad varieties of olive oil. Happy Eaters and Wimpy Bars have given way largely to Leons, Prets and M&S food halls. We now know our patatas bravas from our elbow. Nevertheless, ketchup persisted. And if current trends are anything to go by, it’s not going anywhere fast, retaining its place in our culture and our hearts as the go-to comfort sauce of choice.
No condiment is more heartwarming or handy. Since my sugar and salt-deprived childhood, I’ve incurred the derision of many a French waiter by asking for du sauce tomate to accompany my frites. I’ve begged my husband to harvest as many sachets of ketchup as he could physically carry when buying fish and chips on seaside holidays. I play ketchup as the Joker card each time my children turn their noses up at whatever I happen to have served. “Don’t worry,” I offer shrilly, brandishing the bottle with a little desperation now and then. “You can have some of this on the side!”
And they do. And they love it. And probably, like me, they’ll find one day they cannot live without this oil to our culinary wheels; this reliable gastronomic safety blanket; this absolute and total cultural leveller.
Oh, and by the way, it has to be Heinz.