08.22.2018: One Chapter of Nonfiction

Today's soundtrack is Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention: We're Only In It For the Money, an album that I've always wanted to give a proper listen. Many years ago, I listened to another of Zappa's albums - I don't remember which one - and it wasn't at all what I expected. I'd heard so many good things about what an incredible musician he is, and he had a kind of rockstar look - so when the sound didn't fit with what I'd been expecting, I shut it off. Since that time, however, I've heard more about him - he was very sardonic, very sarcastic. This album lampoons the right/left wing politics of the time, makes fun of the hippie culture, and satirizes the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." Since I now know what I'm getting into with this album, I'm really enjoying it: it's witty, instrumentally sound, and features lots of proggy psychadelic rock bits - kind of like listening to the little brothers of the members of Gentle Giant recording a parody album while high on shrooms or something. The lyrics on this album are hilarious; at a few points, I laughed out loud - references to playing the bongos in the dirt, the ugliest part of the body being the mind...too good. Also, a shout-out to the piano intro on the song "Absolutely Free." Just gorgeous.

This morning, I'm reading the next chapter of Malcolm Gladwell's What the Dog Saw, "The Ketchup Conundrum." This chapter looks at why, though mustard comes in many varieties, ketchup seems to only come in one.

Up until the 1980s, the majority of the population knew only about French's mustard, the standard hot dog mustard - the kind made from the white mustard seed. There was another kind - Dijon mustard - made from "the more pungent brown mustard seed" (p. 32); however, if it could be found at all, it was only carried in specialty food sections. But after a brilliant marketing campaign by a company called Grey Poupon, Dijon mustard became associated with high class; people believed that Dijon mustard "was one of life's finer pleasures" (p. 33) - the stuff that people who drove Rolls Royce cars would eat with their beautifully plated beef. Sales of Grey Poupon Dijon mustard "leaped 40 to 50 percent" (p. 33), and consumers were willing to pay 268% more for the same quantify of mustard, as long as they believed "what they were buying carried with it an air of sophistication and complex aromatics" (p. 34). Gladwell credits Grey Poupon with giving us a mustard section in supermarkets today.

Now, the ketchup business of today is much the same as the mustard business was up until Grey Poupon's marketing campaign in the 1980s. We see Heinz ketchup, Hunt's ketchup, and maybe some other small-name brands that we might buy in a pinch. A man named Jim Wigon had heard about Grey Poupon and wanted to do to the ketchup business what Grey Poupon had done to the mustard industry. He created a company called "World's Best Ketchup." He offers six flavours: "regular, sweet, dill, garlic, caramelized onion, and basil" (p. 35), all made with high-end tomato paste, hand-chopped basil, and maple syrup instead of corn syrup, "which gives him a quarter of the sugar of Heinz [ketchup]" (p. 34). This idea - creating multiple varieties of the same kind of thing - is a relatively new one. Up until the 1990s, most companies would try to find the perfect "x" - the perfect diet Pepsi, the perfect spaghetti sauce. But Howard Moskowitz, a market researcher, discovered that when it comes to the things we consume, there is no perfect anything. It's best to have a variety. That's why today, we have many kinds of spaghetti sauce, many kinds of colas - look at Coca-Cola, for example: Coke Zero, Diet Coke, Decaffeinated Diet Coke, Cherry Coke, Coca-Cola, etcetera. Today, this seems like common sense; at the time that Moskowitz discovered this, it was revolutionary. Up until that point, a company making food "was consumed with the search for human universals. Once you start looking for the sources of human variability, though, the hold orthodoxy goes out the window" (p. 39). Moskowitz found that if you try to make everyone happy, nobody will be truly happy. If you try to make one perfect product that appeals to one focus group, the next focus group will hate it. So instead, make a bunch of different products that appeal to different groups, and perfect each of those products. But even though there are people like Jim Wigon trying to show consumers that there are lots of other kinds of ketchup available out there, they aren't picking up steam; Heinz's market share is only growing. Is it possible that Mskowitz's discovery doesn't apply to ketchup?

Henry J. Heinz was one of the first people to try making ketchup out of ripe tomatoes, pickled in vinegar. Until he tried this, ketchup was made from unripe tomatoes and a preservative called benzoate, which Heinz believed was unsafe in high quantities. He was victorious in his battle over benzoate-based ketchups, and he changed history: Heinz was "the one who changed the flavor of ketchup in a way that made it universal" (p. 44). One of the reasons that this taste caught on so well is that it hits three of the five fundamental tastes. The fundamental tastes are "salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami" (p. 44). Umami, not a common word, is a "proteiny, full-bodied taste" (p. 44). Ripe tomatoes, the major ingredient in Heinz ketchup, are one of the things that give the umami taste. The high quantity of vinegar adds sourness, and the sugar adds sweetness. Heinz's ketchup runs the spectrum of the palate: it "began at the tip of the tongue, where our receptors for sweet and salty first appear, moved along the sides, where sour notes seem the strongest, then hit the back of the tongue, for umami and bitter, in one long crescendo" (p. 45)! No wonder people love it. Also, because it is a condiment, it is something that the eater of the food can control. Researchers discovered that letting children add ketchup to their foods makes them more likely to eat the foods, and children will typically use more ketchup in a sitting than would an adult, so Heinz came up with bottles that were easy for children to squeeze, increasing ketchup usage again.

So we see that Heinz ketchup hits all the major senses of the palate. It has high amplitude- that is, its flavours blend together to make a whole - there isn't an overwhelming taste of ketchup or vinegar or garlic; it's just...ketchup. World's Best Ketchup, though, has low amplitude: its flavours do not blend together; they are strongly dill, or maple syrup, or tomato. And when a food has only one dominant flavour - what Moskowitz calls a "hook" (p. 49) - we can tire of that food, and we can find that it goes well with some foods, but not with others. But when a food has a high amplitude - for example, mayonnaise, or Heinz ketchup - it seems to go well with everything. So maybe it would be better for alternative ketchups to market themselves as sauces. As Moskowitz says, "'I guess ketchup is ketchup'" (p. 50).

#FrankZappa #MalcolmGladwell