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Pass the ketchup.

Byline: ESTHER J. CEPEDA

If I could pour ketchup on this column to make it better, I would.

Though it's pooh-poohed by foodies as a condiment only worthy of a child's immature palate, I love ketchup.

Unapologetically.

Oh, I'm no zealot -- you won't find me pouring ketchup on my eggs or mashed potatoes (like my dad does). But I do break one very important cultural taboo for a Chicagoan: I take my hot dogs steamed on a likewise steamed poppy seed bun, dressed with a delicate drizzle of ketchup flanking its length. No relish, onions, celery salt, etc. Just ketchup.

Some call that blasphemy. I call it elegant simplicity.

Dan Jurafsky might call it Chinese food.

In ''The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu,'' Jurafsky, a professor at Stanford University, blew my mind with a succulently detailed history of ketchup, hot dog preferences notwithstanding.

It is a perfect parable about both the enduring process of globalization and the magic of the American melting pot.

''The ketchup we eat today is nothing like the original version created many centuries ago,'' Jurafsky writes. ''Few people today would recognize the link with the original ke-tchup, a Chinese fermented fish sauce first made in the Fujian province (an area that also gave us the word tea). ... [The Chinese] fermented local fish into ke-tchup -- a fish sauce like the modern Vietnamese fish sauce nuoc mam.''

English and Dutch sailors in Asia trading for silk, porcelain and tea circa 1650 acquired a taste for the fish sauce and brought it back to Europe. Over time, it lost its fish base in favor of tomatoes and vinegar.

Ketchup didn't get sugared up until it came to America (of course), growing in popularity to become the national condiment.

I knew none of this until picking up Jurafsky's wonderfully captivating book. But it does explain why I was misinformed about the grossness of Britain's ketchup -- or catsup, which was the originally preferred American spelling -- before my travels there in 2010.

Someone (who shall remain nameless for so cruelly misguiding me) had convinced me that as I set upon Her Majesty's land to savor the legendary fish and chips of England, Ireland and Scotland, I'd have to do with a bitter, vinegary variety of ketchup. But it turned out that substance was brown sauce, popular in Europe for its acidy kick.

I found that the common varieties of ketchup in Europe are even sweeter than in the U.S. -- a brilliant accompaniment to crispy, flaky, salty fries riding shotgun with deep-fried fish.

It's true that I'm a simpleton when it comes to food. I derive deep joy from my grilled cheese sandwiches, sausage pizza and Vienna beef hot dogs plainly dressed with ketchup while wincing at the delicacies that Jurafsky details in his book such as French aspic (cold jellied broth), Peruvian ceviche (a citrus-cured fish dish) and trendy, pastel-colored Italian macarons (meringue cookies with jam and other sweet fillings).

But truth be told, a foodie might be bored with this book.

''The Language of Food'' is a delicious fact book of world and American history, served with a side of social anthropology.

Sure, there are a few recipes here and there, and delightful investigations of recent food trends.

But Jurafsky's storytelling sings when he's teaching us about the difference in menu word counts between blue-collar greasy spoon dives and high-end chefs' dining rooms. Or when he analyzes the number of dessert mentions in online restaurant reviews as they correlate to diner satisfaction, and when he's bringing the sagas of specific foods to fragrant, tasty life.

Only a reader with a historian's heart will care about the intimate details of how salad, salsa and salami evolved from our ancient, international love affair with salt, the true origins of the domesticated turkey and the almond marzipan the kings of the Sassanid Persian Empire liked to nosh on.

And my husband will never again have to hear me complain about why his family has Thanksgiving ''dinner'' at noon.

Jurafsky says that's just how it's done in some parts of the country, a nod to the original meaning of the word as the heaviest meal of the day, as opposed to the time at which this meal is eaten.

Consider me newly informed. And ready for my next meal, whatever you like to call it.

Esther Cepeda is a syndicated columnist.
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Title Annotation:Editorials
Author:Cepeda, Esther J.
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Nov 21, 2014
Words:730
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