Ketchup Konfidential (or Catsup Confidential)

I won this contest a few years ago. I opened up a bottle of Heinz Ketchup. It wasn’t a squeeze bottle, it was like a real glass ketchup bottle. And usually, and I know this from working at restaurants for so long, but restaurant owners won’t buy only bottled ketchup. They’ll buy like just a few bottles, and then they’ll fill them up from these gigantic bulk cans when they get low. Or, if it’s in the middle of the shift, or if your boss isn’t looking and you don’t feel like going to the supply room and getting a big can, finding the giant can opener, trying to get all of that ketchup out of that big can and into that little bottle, without making a huge mess, (almost impossible) you can maybe just take two half empty bottles and pour one into the other to make one full bottle. That’s called marrying the ketchups. It doesn’t necessarily have to be ketchups that get married, but you know, I’m just illustrating ketchup, just for the sake of a good description.

Anyway, I opened this glass bottle of ketchup and I heard a pop. Just by what I’ve already written down you should realize how rare that is, to have a brand new bottle of ketchup, like fresh out of the factory, sealed. That almost never happens. Like I said, they use these bottles forever. Well, almost forever. Eventually they look terrible, the labels start to peel off, little bits of ketchup crust that accumulate after daily use, they grow into this thick substance, sharp even, and when you open the bottle some of the ketchup crust crumbles off, some of it getting in the bottle, with the fresh, or fresher ketchup, some of it maybe falling into your food. They’ve got to be tossed after a while, eventually, you just have to suck it up, order another case of bottles, and move on.

But restaurant owners, they’re in it to make money, and so sometimes they’ll hold onto those bottles, like way too long. What winds up happening, under worst-case circumstances, there’ll be this thin layer of ketchup that never gets poured out, it’s always just hanging out at the bottom, every time somebody marries a ketchup they happen to marry it into this one. And ketchup’s pretty vinegary, so it’ll stay good for a while, weeks, months even. But eventually, it’s a food, it’s perishable, it’s going to perish. Stuff happens, things start to bubble. Maybe this one ketchup will be in circulation just one day too long. And the top is on really tight. So all of those chemical reactions, the really old ketchup starting to ferment, whatever, I’m not claiming to understand the science, all I know is, you open that ketchup …

Like one time I was out to eat with some of my friends. It was at a bar and it was a trivia night so everybody was drinking and playing trivia and we ordered food. But the food was taking forever, like an hour, an hour and a half. Everybody’s OK, because there’s other stuff going on, but my one friend, he’s starving. He hasn’t eaten anything all day. So he’s getting pissed off. I’d be pissed off too. Finally the food comes. Oh yeah, did I mention that he was wearing all white? White everything, hat, jacket, pants, white, white, white.

Do I even have to tell you what happened? Unlucky day for an unlucky guy unfortunately decked out all in white. He got that bad bottle of ketchup. Ask him what happens when you let ketchup sit around for too long.

I’m getting distracted. The contest. So I open this bottle, it makes the pop because it’s so fresh, and then I go to pour. But nothing’s coming out. I try doing what my boss in high school always told his customers to do, to “Hit the fifty-seven! Hit the fifty-seven!” I mean, when you say it like that it might be a little confusing, but every Heinz glass bottle has the number fifty-seven carved in the side of the bottle. And I’m telling you, it works. You tilt the bottle, you hit the fifty-seven, I’ve always done it with an open palm, and the ketchup flows right out.

I was hitting the fifty-seven. Nothing was working. I wouldn’t give up. I took a knife and stuck it in the bottle, hoping to draw it out. But it wouldn’t go in. Whatever was inside, it was hard, totally solid. I looked on the Internet, “ketchup, bottle, rock hard,” and I found this obscure condiment blogger who wrote about some promotion that Heinz ran in the sixties. It was like the whole Willie Wonka and the golden ticket thing, but it wasn’t a golden ticket, it was a bottle of solid ketchup. There would be only one, and the person who found it would win a million dollars.

I started to get excited. Imagine my luck, this bottle of ketchup getting passed down through the ages, somehow never being opened. Or maybe people got so frustrated thinking that the ketchup was just stuck, maybe they didn’t know to hit the fifty-seven, maybe they worried about a ketchup explosion, and so they always gave up, always asked for a new bottle of ketchup. But now it was all mine.

I got in touch with Heinz. It took several attempts. Nobody knew what I was talking about, but finally I found somebody who’d been at the company for years. He confirmed was I already knew, that Heinz owed me a million dollars.

“Come on,” some guy told me, “That was the sixties. Back then companies could say whatever they wanted on advertisements and not have to worry about paying up, about legal action.” Still, I wasn’t backing down without a fight. I’d hire a lawyer, I told them, I wouldn’t go away.

Finally one day I got a package in the mail. Several packages actually. Two UPS trucks filled with packages. I told them to drop everything off in the basement. Attached to the last one was a card. It read:

Rob. You wanted a million dollars? Here it is. A million dollars worth of ketchup packets. No fine print in the sixties means we can give you a million dollars as we see fit. Enjoy!

Heinz! I guess they got the last laugh after all. What am I supposed to do with all of this stuff? I tried unloading to the nearby restaurants, and that kind of worked, but nobody wanted to buy a million dollars worth outright. No, I sold like thirty dollars here, thirty dollars there. Nothing really. It barely made a dent in my inventory.

And meanwhile, I know basically everything there is to know about bottled ketchup, but packets? Do these things go bad? Are they all going to turn bad and explode in my basement? That would be such a mess, attracting so many bugs. I’ve got to move this product, it’s like a red time bomb down there.

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