Ketchup – A metaphor for modernity

Imagine A: A young male bachelor, laying on a sofa and watching F.R.I.E.N.D.S on HBO alone, while eating takeout dinner.

Imagine B: A religious-minded family, offering prayers , before eating their lunch together.

Who is more likely to have ketchup on their plate?
And why is the answer always A?

Ketchup, quite surprisingly, has Chinese origins, though the ketchup we eat today has little to do with what was eaten in China. What is more, most would not know its genealogical origins. Much like liberalism, science, or linguistic chauvinism. Despite its Chinese origins, ketchup owes its popularity, like many memes in currency today, to American cultural imperialism – predatory MNCs and franchises, background of TV shows and movies, marketing – these are some of the arms of this behemoth.

Homogenization of taste

The myriad of spices.
The variance in pungency.
The diversity of textures.
The spectrum of colors.
The appeal to a wide span of taste receptors

All of these can be compressed into one homogeneous set of characteristics; a peculiar mix of sweet and sour, a glossy blob of ripe-red, a familiar touch of cold. All of this, just by adding a good dollop of ketchup onto your dish.

The ketchup-eater may be under the impression of being a cosmopolitan, open-minded person, tasting Chowmein from China, to Pizza in Italy, to Parathas in India, to Falafel in Lebanon, to Burritos of Mexico. Yet all of this is a superficial gloss; the food experience is diluted by the homogenizing medium of ketchup. Similar to how college students think that having fixed proportions of different melanin flesh on campus will lead to diversity. An observant reader may draw further parallels with liberal democracy, mass education, and urbanization.

Cultural transmission vs DIY learning

There are 2 kinds of cooks:
One is those who largely obey the recipes passed down from parents, with modifications to this template – descent with modification. We can call them “Evolutionists”.
The second is those who prefer DIY learning, supplemented with YouTube, picking up videos that are either preordered by YouTube’s recommendation engine algorithms, or suggested by their friends. This second type often ignores many culturally transmitted recpies. They are also more prone to greater trial-and-error with different sorts of ingredients. We can call them “Revolutionists”.

You are more likely to find idli/vada-with-ketchup eaters among the Revolutionists. This comes from a lack of ‘discrimination.’ Revolutionists are more likely to ask “What is wrong in trying something new?”.

On the other hand, Evolutionists are more likely to be comfortable with sticking to the familiar, offering that, like how mutations in our cellular biology are more likely to be deleterious, so too would “DIY recipes” be failures.

This urge to mix and match, among Revolutionists, can be linked to a constantly regenerating desire for novelty, an impatience with the old and familiar. While the distaste for tradition is well-attested within modernity, the growth of impatience also finds its roots in modernity. Click-bait news, pop-science, fast-food, hookup culture: all of these indeed have a common homology and reinforce each other, leading to a rise in time-preference.

Local vs Global

Ketchup is the sole preserve of Big BusinessTM. It has found its way into homes of billions across the planet. And it is only a handful of companies that dominate the market share for ketchup. For example, Heinz is responsible for 82% of the market share in the UK, and 60% in the US. A typical factory can produce up to 175,000 metric tonnes per year.

Paste being squeezed out of packages in a ketchup factory

Rather than being masterfully crafted by women via culturally transmitted rules, tomato paste is transported from dark warehouses via automated forklifts, mixed with mysterious ingredients, processed in menacing steel containers, pushed into a lifeless army of empty bottles, and transported with a sense of urgency across conveyor belts. This loss of craftsmanship toward an algorithmic, human-free process is another key feature of modernity.

Privileging shadowy global forces (of free market, in this case) over ties of blood means that you forsake your best interests for the sake of convenience and status. As a result, you cede control of your life to inimical stakeholders, who seek to turn the masses to NPCs, unconsciously following a controlling script.

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