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Illustration by Alyssa Kiefer

It’s Friday and I’ve just dropped a giant pat of butter, two rosemary sprigs, and a handful of crushed garlic cloves into a sizzling pan. Most days my boyfriend and I are pescatarian, but we can still appreciate a good steak when the craving strikes.

I spend the next few minutes closely monitoring our tender NY strips as they sear in the pan, casually sipping an Argentinian Malbec and oozing Ina Garten swagger.

With a flourish, I place our beautiful dinner plates on the table. Before we dig in, I check the fridge for steak sauce. Say what you will, but it’s a nice touch if you’re not a hardcore carnivore who enjoys their steak ultra-rare and naked. A few minutes of shuffling things around and I realize we’re out. After a frustrated sigh, I shrug and reach for the next best thing: a bottle of Heinz ketchup.

Don’t @ me — it’s just what I like

I feel like I’m about to get a lot of hate for that last statement. Before you click away or start saging your homes to purify the evil concept that is ketchup on steak, I’d like to point out that I’m aware this isn’t a practice worthy of a Michelin Star. No one is submitting my ketchup-and-steak pairing for a James Beard Award.

And if ketchup on steak offends your delicate sensibilities, you might wanna sit down for this next confession. I’m in my 30s, and I put ketchup on just about everything: eggs (scrambled, poached, sunny side up, Benedict… I could keep going), sandwiches, meat, veggies, chips, tacos, fried fish — the list goes on.

And yet, ketchup makes me so effing happy, I really don’t care if that upsets you. Sure, it’s about how it tastes (tangy-sweet with an acidic bite that somehow enriches almost any food), but it’s really about how it makes me feel.

Sure, it’s for kids, but it helped me grow up

If I had to Psych 101 it, I can tie my ketchup obsession to the Midwestern meat-and-potatoes diet of my childhood and the culinary whimsy of my Baby Boomer father, who cooked dinner most nights in my house.

Our dinner formula was simple: There was a meat, a potato, and a vegetable. They were usually prepared via some fancy recipe my dad had dug out of one of his many cookbooks — or, if we were lucky, he would freestyle like a mad scientist in the kitchen. Food was always served with a piece of buttered white bread and a glass of milk. (I think I may have the strongest bones in America. To this day, I’ve never broken one, and that’s not for lack of trying.)

I was a picky eater as a kid — like macaroni-and-hot-dogs-were-all-I-wanted picky — and my dad used ketchup to get me to branch out. “Try it once, and if you don’t like it, you never have to eat it again” was his rule.

So this is how I came to try, and enjoy, foods like meatloaf, roast rabbit, beer-can chicken, grilled venison, lamb burgers, fish and chips, frog legs (which my dad picked up and used to dance the can-can before we dove in — and which is also allegedly how he won over my mother on their first date), alligator, squid, kielbasa, duck, and on and on.

Ketchup would open the door, and then I’d be off, stuffing my face and never looking back.

It’s the safest condiment, but it made me adventurous

When I think about my favorite condiment now, I realize it’s one of the reasons I’ve been able to live such a full life. When I was 8 years old, we took a family vacation to Japan. Japan, where people eat raw fish for breakfast, eel as a snack, and sweet scrambled eggs for dinner. To the right palate, it’s a culinary paradise. It was also the prime opportunity for an American kid to spend 2 weeks screaming for chicken nuggets like the epitome of cross-cultural grace.

Thanks to my dad, though, I’d been eating sushi and squid since I was about 5 or 6. We started with chicken teriyaki (with a side of ketchup, of course) and made our way through the menu from there.

When I was 16 and took my first solo study abroad trip to Italy, just a week after my mother had passed away from cancer, I found comfort, healing, and even bravery in the overflow of tomatoey dishes that went down like a warm hug. I’d spend my days lighting candles in Renaissance churches for my mom and then housing plates of saucy carbs in honor of my dad.

Even though that was easily the hardest moment of my life, every day I felt more joy than sadness, and I somehow came home more whole than when I’d left.

In college I spent a few weeks in London and Paris, where I feasted on creamy stouts with fish and chips, decadent steak tartar, escargot, duck à l’orange, and crepes stuffed with chocolate and bananas. On the days I felt homesick, I’d order frites or a croque madame with ketchup, and all would be well.

The real reason I’m so pro-ketchup, though? It connects me to my childhood and my dad when they feel far away

Even now, as I write this from my home in Columbus, Ohio — a 30-year-old woman trying to navigate student loans, probing questions about whether my boyfriend and I will ever get married and have a baby, surviving a global pandemic, fussing over an anxiety and ADHD diagnosis, and wondering if climate change will wipe out the earth before I’ve had time to figure out what I’m even doing here — a drizzle of ketchup can take me right back to the kitchen table of my youth. 

I’ve just come inside after a heated game of capture the flag. There’s dirt still in my hair, and I’m nursing a scrape on my knee as I sit down and wait to eat. My dad is in the kitchen, agonizing over how his latest creation was a disaster (it wasn’t) and how it hadn’t turned out just right (it had). My mom is watching TV while she folds laundry.

My dad eventually throws up his hands and tells us to grab a plate. We sit down with our slabs of juicy meatloaf, roasted vegetables, buttered bread, and glasses of milk. My dad hands me the bottle of ketchup with a sly smile, and for one moment, everything is absolutely perfect.