A Stream of Consciousness Regarding
This Ambiguous Category of Food
The New York Times recently published a riveting piece of journalism about our nation’s favorite condiment and I, quite figuratively, ate it right up. Ranch Nation, written by Julia Moskin, took a long, hard look at the creamy, peppery, herb-flecked sauce coveted by so many. Her article delved into the history of this salad dressing that in reality is so much more than a salad dressing, and even investigated the impact that such a beloved, yet often ridiculed, food has had on American cuisine — and on food across the globe, at that. If you haven’t yet read it, I would enthusiastically recommend.
Because of Ranch Nation, curiosity got this cat right here and I began to pour over various articles on the origins of ketchup, mustard, barbecue sauce, and the likes. (Fun fact! According to an article by National Geographic published back in 2014 [but discovered by me only last Thursday], the origins of ketchup can actually be traced back to China — China! — to a dark-colored, fermented fish sauce called kê-tsiap. My, how far it has traveled.) Why...what did you do last Thursday?
Having consumed such a detailed piece about the ins and outs of ranch dressing, my gears started turning: I sent myself into a spiral of internet investigation, researching all sorts of table sauces — these food enhancements that we employ on a daily basis to excite our palate with something more than that which we are currently ingesting. Because, why do we smother everything in a sticky-sweet, vinegar-spiked, shiny-red tomato reduction? Why is mayonnaise so totally polarizing that people either keep packets in their purse for just-in-case (me!), or feign allergic to it as a means of avoiding the stuff? Is it just here in America that these condiments have become the queens of our dining experiences? Or is our love-affair with condiments part of human nature — a mere side effect of people’s desire for the familiar?
Food for thought.
According to Wikipedia, a condiment or “table sauce” is: a spice, sauce, or preparation that is added to a food to impart a specific flavor, to enhance the flavor, or in some cultures, to compliment the dish. The term originally described pickled or preserved foods, but its meaning has changed over time.
Merriam Webster, on the other hand, defines a condiment as: something used to enhance the flavor of food; something (such as salt, mustard, or ketchup) that is added to food to give it more flavor.
I think Merriam has taken some serious liberties with the salt suggestion (I would categorize salt as a seasoning — and a vital one, at that), but mustard and ketchup I can firmly get behind. Those are condiments. And mayonnaise is a condiment. Barbecue sauce is a condiment. Salad dressings, such as Thousand Island and Honey Mustard can be condiments. But...would one consider Caesar dressing a condiment? What about pesto? Or heck, would Greek yogurt, which is of course very regularly eaten by itself but can also be caught masquerading as a garnish for soup [among many other things]...be considered a condiment?
How do we know what’s what?
Do we draw parameters for condiments based upon whether or not they would be appropriate on a sandwich? (See: mayo, mustard, honey mustard, thousand island, ranch). Would we classify a condiment as something into which a french fry would be dipped? (See: ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, ranch, honey mustard, barbecue sauce, cheese sauce, chili, Wendy’s Frosties). Or, if we’re using Wikipedia’s definition, must we expand our criterion to include ingestibles such as pickles, olives, chutney, relish, oil, spices, and red freaking pepper flakes
Where do we draw the line?
Here’s another head-scratcher I’ll toss your way: there’s seemingly no seasonality to condiments; no right or wrong time of year (or even time of day!) for consumption. At least, that’s how it goes with most of them. Despite the fact that tomatoes have a very specific window of stardom each year (one that lies precisely between June and September) ketchup is abundantly employed throughout the depths of winter and into the peak of summer — not to mention its omnipresence at all three major meals. And its good buddy mustard? Same story. Mayonnaise? It’s slathered on turkey sandwiches all year long. Tabasco? It’s shaken onto eggs, dumped into chilis, and mixed into a bloody mary regardless of whether the temperatures are in the single or triple digits.
But then...what about gravy? And cranberry sauce? Are those two considered condiments or would one classify them as “seasonal sides?” Call me crazy, but I’m not trying to eat Thanksgiving gravy on its own. (By the way, we could have an entire conversation about gravy alone: the different types of gravy and the way the product changes based upon factors like culture, geographical location, and time of year. But I digress; we won’t go there right now.) So, since gravy isn’t a stand-alone eat, does that, by default, turn it into compliment for something else? And does that “compliment” classification equal...condiment? Although technically available at all times of the year (Thank you, chemical food engineering! Thank you, supermarkets! Thank you, Monsanto!), condiments such as gravy and cranberry sauce do, at least in theory, have a season in which they are more popularly prepared and enjoyed. So with that in mind, maybe they’re not condiments at all. But then...what?
Shockingly and [in my opinion] daringly, Wikipedia has gone so far as to publish an entire list of condiments, complete with 130+ suggestions. (And for the record neither gravy nor cranberry sauce are on it.) The list includes the usual suspects, such as mayo, mustard, ketchup and hot sauce. But it also includes the likes of pico de gallo (that’s just fresh salsa), jalapeño (pretty sure that’s a vegetable), lemon (very positive that’s a fruit), nutritional yeast (#WTF), and Banana Ketchup (whatever the hell that is). Of course, Wiki does offer a disclaimer at the top of the page, saying, “This is a dynamic list and may never be able to satisfy particular standards for completeness. You can help by expanding it with reliably sourced entries.”
Wait. What was that, Wikipedia? “this list...may never be able to satisfy particular standards of completeness,” you say?
That’s the part that really did me in.
Because this simple little disclaimer — this brief moment of trepidation; the moment in which Wikipedia drops to its knees and prematurely begs for forgiveness — so imperfectly answers the very question at hand:
What is a condiment and what is not?
Turns out, the answer is not black and white.
The true beauty of a condiment is its free spirit; its ability to ebb and flow, to be both here and there all at the same time. A condiment might act as a garnish for your avocado toast, be the dressing that pulls your salad together, and offer the moisturization you so desperately need for that too-dry chicken sandwich. Some condiments might spend their time acting as supporting ingredients for a larger-scale dish, whereas others may be offered at the table as an afterthought and then completely ignored and thrown out.
In the end, what I’ve realized is this: the categorization of a condiment merely lies in the mind, palate, and refrigerator of the beholder. Because when it comes to these table sauces, the question of “to be or not to be” is in fact not the question. The question at hand is simply, “what does it need?”
Wikipedia’s list of condiments “may never be able to satisfy particular standards of completeness,” and perhaps that’s just because the arbitrary level of *completeness* does. not. exist. Is the answer as simple as that? That condiments, though often times so succinctly categorized and organized in both our brains and our pantries, in reality have the distinct pleasure of existing outside of any category in particular? Because while any French fry of mine is welcome to go for a dip in a pile of ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, or hot sauce, I cannot willingly commit to slathering a Wendy’s Frosty on my turkey sandwich.