October 20, 2005
Preserving the amenities in grandmother’s memory
My grandmother thought ketchup was an inferior condiment. Unlike the wonderful mayonnaise she carefully made with eggs and oil and a sprinkle of paprika, ketchup came out of a bottle and the thought of little boys pounding the bottom of the ketchup bottle at the dinner table was to her a scene of disgusting repugnance.
Ketchup might be permitted, in small quantity on top of a meat loaf or those croquettes of canned salmon that she would cook for supper in her big black iron skillet. That was all. And when the ketchup was on the table, it was in a pretty little dish and ladled out with a silver spoon.
My grandmother, who was essentially a good Presbyterian Puritan, with perhaps a tincture of Victorianism, was the unquestioned mistress of her kitchen, and she definitely did not consider ketchup a vegetable!
Of course, all of this was absorbed by me when still a little boy. Then came the convenience of frozen French fries. I hate to sound so fozzilized, but when I came along about the only frozen foods our grocery story in the Mississippi Delta sold were little packages of French fries (the thick, crinkle-cut variety), green peas, spinach, and truly awful frozen strawberries that could be used only for cooking in some recipe that called for crushed berries, such as those wonderful strawberry cakes I used to devour with such relish.
Our old Frigidaire had such a small freezing compartment that after a couple of ice trays were in place, there was room for only three or four of those little packages of frozen food.
I write this only with the thought that some youth might be reading this article and realize that one could live on much less than we presently have and still be happy and satisfied — for we were, even though we did not have a clue as to all the things we were “missing.”
But once I got to be 10 or 12 years old, I began to crave those French fries. And, of course, French fries must be eaten with copious amounts of ketchup.
This led to a head-on collision with my grandmother’s sense of propriety, for she was not convinced that ketchup was necessary to the enjoyment of French fries, and she was resolute in her conviction that ketchup bottles had no place on her dining room table.
As adolescence wore on, my ketchup addiction became more and more pronounced. It had to be Heinz and it had to be eaten, not only on French fries, but hamburgers, fried okra and even (I admit this is odd) on roast beef, scrambled eggs, rib-eye steak and fried chicken. (I did not put ketchup all over potato chips as today’s children like to do. My generation had some limits, I will have you know!)
It would have worked best for me if I could have had at our table one of those compression pumps for my ketchup like you find at Wendy’s or Cap’n D’s. Eventually, I learned how to hide a ketchup bottle under the table, for the little dish grandmother would put out for my ketchup simply would not hold the ketchup in sufficient quantities for my needs.
It was a pitiful state, but they say confession is good for the soul.
My grandmother was hardly alone in her views. My friend JoAnne Brooks of Corinth told me about her mother’s conversation with her home care nurse shortly before her mother, Mrs. Biggers (who was our own Betty Knight’s aunt) passed away.
It seems that some food for which ketchup was desired was being served and the nurse casually placed a bottle of ketchup on Mrs. Biggers’ breakfast-room table. Mrs. Biggers looked at JoAnne and remarked weakly, “So, now it has come to this.”
JoAnne asked the nurse if she could put some ketchup in a bowl.
One day a few years ago, I lost my obsession for ketchup. I just woke up one morning and the awful obsession was gone.
I can go a year now and not use up a small bottle. Meanwhile, even though I, like so many of you, eat “on the run” and with few of the niceties of my grandmother’s beautifully served dinners, I try for the sake of her memory and example to at least preserve a few of the civilizing amenities of her table.
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