Will Musgrove

How I Overcame My Obsession with Heinz Ketchup

I rattled my butterknife inside the ketchup bottle until a blob of red plopped onto my plate. I poked the condiment, checking its consistency. Then I opened my fanny pack and removed my box of taste-testing toothpicks. The world used to think tomatoes were poisonous until one brave soul tried one and survived. I used to be obsessed with ketchup until the thought became poisonous, and I couldn’t survive.

         Ketchup zigzagging down a hot dog. Ketchup spiraling atop a hamburger patty. Ketchup dripping off a French fry like paint dripping off the tip of a paintbrush ready to color your tastebuds. These were the values I used to uphold. Not just any ketchup, though. No, it had to be name-brand. It had to be Heinz ketchup.

         With a toothpick, I scooped up a pinprick of red. I licked the toothpick, which always felt like licking a needle to check someone’s blood type. What’s my blood type? Great Value. Catsup. The label you don’t recognize.

         As a kid, I never ate Heinz ketchup. Instead, my parents bought stuff like bag cereal, the cereal on the bottom shelf missing its box. Why do they put bag cereal on the bottom shelf? Since they’re giving us a discount, they want us to bend down to pick it up. They want us to work for it.

         There was no time for the present. There was no time to play the games on the back of the missing cereal box. There was no time to dig for the hidden toy. No time for Heinz ketchup. We ate in silence. We ate fast. We were always on someone else’s clock. Or maybe the future was already set for me. Why waste time getting there, right? Whatever the reason, I said no. I said no and became a ketchup connoisseur instead.

         I spent what money I had on Heinz ketchup. I toured the Heinz ketchup factory in Muscatine, Iowa, an hour and some change drive from my apartment. I studied Heinz ketchup, learned random facts. Like, did you know in the early 2010s a group of scammers tried to pass off generic ketchup for Simply Heinz, which is made with cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup? The sweet stuff. All the phony bottles fermented and exploded. I was one of these bottles. I was.

         And the ketchup on my taste-testing toothpick wasn’t Heinz. The restaurant owner, who suspiciously looked like my father, graying, hands that cracked and bled when it got too dry, the red we’re forced to give, walked out of the kitchen and apologized. He said the ketchup was really homemade marinara sauce. He said he and the other restaurant owners in town were worried about me, worried about my obsession.

         He pleaded with me until I agreed to try the restaurant’s special. He disappeared to the back. When he returned, he sat a bag of cereal, Crispy Colors, and a gallon of milk on the table. He combined the two like an artist who’d mastered his craft. He offered me the bowl, and I ate a spoonful. It tasted like one day at a time, and I realized there was so much more to life than Heinz ketchup.

         So, so much more.

Will Musgrove is a writer and journalist from Northwest Iowa. He received an MFA from Minnesota State University, Mankato. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Penn Review, X-R-A-Y, Sundog Lit, Tampa Review, and elsewhere. Connect on Twitter at @Will_Musgrove or at williammusgrove.com.

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