You might be a Midwesterner if … You think that ketchup is a little too spicy, and that mustard is an ethnic food.
~Internet humor post
I love a good condiment story, don’t you? When was it… Oh, just a few years ago, I read about a West Virginia man who had driven off an embankment in the wintertime. His car went into a ravine of sorts and it took people a week to find him. But, he was alive and well. It turns out the man survived on ketchup packets from the floor of his car. I remember thinking, “Damn, how many ketchup packets did the guy have in there?” And, by the way, West Virginia gets a special exemption in my book. That is to say, I include them in my definition of Midwestern. They’re just a mountainous variety.
In any case, for this next “tale,” I’ll have to slightly bend the rules. This is something that happened to me well after leaving the Midwest. Having nearly escaped permanently, I hadn’t thought far enough ahead to realize that my old friends would be getting married sooner or later. As such, I’d have numerous somewhat obligatory opportunities to revisit my home town and “catch up.” (That’s meant a pun, and you’ll understand why in a bit.)
One of the early trips home was for Oral Roberts’ wedding. I’ve named this character Oral Roberts for two reasons: First, I think this guy believes he can talk directly with God, just like the old whackjob televangelist of the same name. And, second: I just think the name “Oral” is funny. (What can I say … I’ve never evolved beyond 6th grade humor.) Anyway Oral’s wedding was largely uneventful as far as these things go. Except for the rehearsal dinner. Try as I might, I never could figure out what set off the bride’s relatives in the V.F.W. hall that night.
Oral’s dad was a good guy. I’d known him for many years and had always respected him. We showed up at the rehearsal dinner, and he welcomed “the guys” back home, offering us full access to the V.F.W.’s bar, though we were probably still a bit young for it. (Not that that’s any surprise at a V.F.W. hall, of course. After all, who’s going to tell some twenty-year-old war veteran that he can’t have a Budweiser?) Anyway, this was your normal affair — draught beer, snacks trays heated with Sterno flame canisters, 1980s pinball machines, pub darts. Nothing out of the ordinary. But then the dinner was served.
Somehow, the groom’s side and the bride’s side had separated to two different seating areas in the bar. So, when we all approached the buffet, the groom and his buddies lined up on one side of the table, the bride and her people along the other. I’d nearly filled my plate, but must have had a minute to sample a few things while still standing in line. This part I remember clearly: I remarked to my friend John (who will be known in this memoir as John Cusack), rather matter-of-factly, “Hey, this ketchup tastes like cocktail sauce.”
Appropriately, he just mumbled something like “mmm-hmm.” After all, it was an extremely unimportant remark, right? But, something had stirred across the table.
At this point, a well dressed guy on the bride’s side simply said, possibly to himself (as there was no eye contact), “It’s ketchup.”
Well, I almost didn’t hear the guy, as I didn’t know him and wouldn’t have been paying him much attention. But, I did manage to detect what he said, and thought I’d be conversational. “Oh, I know,” I explained. “It is ketchup, but I was just saying to my friend how it tastes like cocktail sauce.”
The man looked up at me. He was an older guy, bearded, and with a serious look on his face like something you’d perhaps see on someone who’d been an air traffic controller for a long time but who also lacked the proper stress management capacity for the job. He then repeated his statement a bit more forcefully, and with full eye contact this time: “It’s ketchup.” I was like an unwelcome blip on the man’s radar screen, apparently.
It might have ended there. But, my friend John happened to tune in to the conversation at this point. He grabbed a breaded chicken strip, dipped it into the sauce and said, “It really does taste like cocktail sauce.”
Well, that was it. That was the mid-air collision for this man. He burst into an apoplectic rage fully shouting, “Well, it’s NOT cocktail sauce, is it? It’s KETCHUP!!!!”
Well, hell, we weren’t about to ruin our buddy’s wedding. So, we backed down. We both gave an unmistakable “easy there” gesture and I said something like, “You’re right; it’s ketchup. It’s just ketchup. Good old American ketchup.” Aside from a fluke 20-foot behind-the-back perfect swish basketball shot I threw when (of course) no one was looking, I don’t remember one other detail from that entire weekend. But, I’ve often mulled over that particular memory. What could explain this guy’s devotion to ketchup?
Well, I still can offer no solid proof, but I do have one theory (and, I’ll have to switch my preferred “ketchup” spelling to “catsup” from here on out). Way back in 1949, the (surprise, surprise) Midwestern town of Collinsville, Illinois, realized what certainly must have been a postwar dream for so many Midwesterners at the time. Yes, they erected the “world’s largest catsup bottle” at the Brooks Catsup plant. Besides being a huge and puzzlingly beloved-to-this-very-day eyesore, it did at least function as a water tower at the time.
If you’ve never tasted Brooks Catsup, you may not know that this brand boasts an especially tangy taste. In fact, it even markets itself as such. While I’m no expert in condiment marketing, I would assume that this is their main differentiation from, say, the more famous Heinz product.
Interestingly enough, around the time of this little flare-up at the V.F.W. hall, the tower’s future had become uncertain. According to the official web site (and, yes, of course the catsup tower has a web site! See, believe it or not, www.CatsupBottle.com):
“In 1993, Curtice Burns, Inc., the then-parent company of Brooks Foods, decided to sell the property. The water tower’s future was in jeopardy and the Catsup Bottle Preservation Group was formed.”
So, it is at least within the realm of possibility that my rather flip, meaningless observation touched off something deep within the guy, tantamount to questioning his integrity. I now believe that this particular psychopath not only knew about the plight of this “landmark,” but may even have somehow been involved in saving it. We weren’t particularly near Collinsville, Illinois, but I sense I’m onto something with this line of reasoning. Just to be safe, though, I’ve added “condiments” to my list of conversational subjects that I consider taboo when in the company of Midwesterners about whom their views on these matters are previously unknown to me.
✍🏻 Jim Dee maintains his personal blog, “Hawthorne Crow,” and a web design blog, “Web Designer | Web Developer Magazine.” He also contributes to various Medium.com publications. Find him at JPDbooks.com, his Amazon Author page, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Medium, or via email at Jim [at] ArrayWebDevelopment.com. His latest novel, CHROO, is available on Amazon.com. If you enjoy humorous literary tales, please grab a copy!