Ketchup Is Not a Vegetable. It’s Not Even a Sauce.

Back in the 80s, when I was a kid, they — they being the United States Department of Agriculture under the Reagan administration — tried to tell us ketchup was a vegetable.

Ketchup is not a vegetable. Ketchup is mostly a gooey, mass-produced form of tomato-flavored, chemically engineered sugar. Which means it’s not even a proper sauce.

It’s a condiment — a very cheap condiment at that.

Now, that’s not to say ketchup’s necessarily bad. It goes good on some things: namely ground beef and fried potatoes.

Some folks (especially kids) put it on other fried food — chicken fingers, fish sticks, that sort of thing. There are certainly more sophisticated condiments for that situation — honey mustard, ranch dressing, tartar sauce, even cocktail sauce (which is ketchup plus horseradish and some Worcestershire sauce) — and don’t even let’s get started on actual sauces and/or gravies.

But, I mean, I get it: putting ketchup on fried meat makes the same sort of sense that it makes to put ketchup on French fries: sugar plus salt plus fat just plain tastes good to most folks.

There’s even some people who put ketchup on hotdogs, which is also acceptable, I suppose, though that’s a taste sensation that has (no lie) always made me a little bit dizzy. (Like no but seriously: it makes me lightheaded. It’s not a bad sensation, per se. It’s just a little, you know, weird.)

But I repeat:

Ketchup is not a sauce and it’s certainly not a vegetable.

If the only “vegetable” you eat is ketchup, you’ll be malnourished.

If you eat actual vegetables but you put ketchup on them (and all the rest of your food), you’re not going to have a very sophisticated palate.

An Interjection

“But what does that have to do with me?”

— You

“You” poems ≃ Ketchup.

The “You” poems I tend to encounter here at the A-to-the-S-to-the-F-to-the-A are free verse (and often more or less cryptic) addresses to a somewhat disembodied Other who the speaker of the poem, um, knows or something. Which is fine. It’s good to know people. It’s good to write poems, to, for, and/or about people you know.

And don’t get me wrong. There’s some classic “You” poems in the world. (Poems that, FWIW, I totally frickin’ love.)

W. H. Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats — Actually it’s only the second section of this long poem that’s a second-person address to Yeats. That’s a good tip: don’t drown the fries in ketchup. A little bit goes a long way. Here the short, self-contained direct address to a beloved mentor/muse changes the tone of the poem and packs an emotional punch. (“Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.” O. M…alright: yes: we’ll add the F because it’s Auden and it’s warranted: O. M. F. G. Per. Fect.)

Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy —  Talk about emotional punch. Plath is writing about her complex relationship with her father, her father’s memory and (it’s been suggested) her husband, poet Ted Hughes. Most of the poem is an extended metaphor comparing the father figure to a Nazi and her role in that relationship as tantamount to that of a Jew in a concentration camp. The images are powerful and vivid, the language is raw and alive, and the poem is utterly and compellingly idiosyncratic.

William Carlos Williams’s “This Is Just to Say — Perhaps the simplest “You” poem there is, but without the “You” he’s addressing here, there is no occasion for the poem.

In all three of these examples, the speaker’s relationship to the “You” is very clear, and there’s a deep, intimate connection between them. So deep, in fact, that in two cases, it transcends the “You’s” death. (Even the Williams poem clearly implies that the speaker and the “You” live in close enough quarters to share an icebox.)

In fact, in at least two of the cases, the “You” is a very specific, identifiable (and identified) person: William Butler Yeats and Otto Plath (with maybe a dash of Ted “Horseradish” Hughes). And in the other, it ain’t a stretch to say the “You” is Williams’s poor plumless wife, Florence.

Also: even in the case of “Daddy,” which is clearly dealing with some very difficult emotions associated with this relationship, these connections are complex and nuanced. This is not the “You” of a Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber song. It’s not as simple as saying “I love you” or “I hate you” or “I can’t live without you” (baby).

Also x 2: All three of these poems use vivid and specific images.

Also x 3: There’s a specific occasion for all of these poems — the “You’s” death in two of the poems; in the other, it’s a simple (but subtly complex) mea culpa from one domestic partner to another.

So let’s review:

Specific person. Specific event/occasion. Specific images.

Those are your ground beef and your fried potatoes. You wanna put ketchup on ’em, go ahead.

Which leads us back to the Overarching Poetics of Ketchup.

If you consistently revert to the default mode of writing “You” poems, it’s at least equivalent to putting ketchup on everything: pizza, eggs, steak, mac-and-cheese, eww: macaroons. That’s, like, the exact opposite of what you should be doing at a time when you’re trying to broaden your palate as a writer. (In fact, that goes for any sort of writerly “default mode” you’ve developed for yourself, not just “You” poems. )

If all you ever write is “You” poems, that’s tantamount to saying ketchup is a vegetable. And I don’t want to live in a world where people think ketchup is a vegetable.

I mean, if you’re only going to write one kind of poem, stick with the supernutritious kale of the poetical food pyramid and write you some — wait for it… — sonnets!

6 thoughts on “Ketchup Is Not a Vegetable. It’s Not Even a Sauce.

  1. thebabelblog October 20, 2011 / 3:45 pm

    I’ve always considered it to be a terrible fruit smoothie.

  2. bjanecarp October 20, 2011 / 5:12 pm

    Love it! The essay. Not ketchup, necessarily.


  3. Jessica October 20, 2011 / 5:13 pm

    • Jessica October 20, 2011 / 5:14 pm

      and now i feel the need to go back through ALL of my poetry.
      on it.

  4. bjanecarp October 20, 2011 / 5:14 pm

    WCW didn’t eat ketchup on his plums, I wager. Just a thought.


  5. tjbeitelman October 20, 2011 / 5:15 pm

    (Never met a metaphor I didn’t like to mix.)

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