The history of popular culture: 1 Tomato Ketchup
Tuesday 26 March 1996
The red plastic tomato ranks alongside hot-air driers and unaccompanied folk singing in contemporary cultural demonology. We spurn the brown sticky bits around the nozzle, the suspicion of heavily vinegarised adulteration, the bulbous greasiness as we try to grasp and squeeze. That much is self- evident, but is there any wider significance to this?
I'll say there is. Imagine for a moment how different our town centres might now look had Wimpy Bars and similar outlets opted back in the Sixties for the chunky glass ketchup bottle rather than the plastic tomato. Ronald McDonald might never have made it here, that spot in the High Street occupied by the Tie Rack might now be a Golden Egg. Sure, the food wasn't that good and the pale brown beverage they served was like an artist's impression of coffee, but it was only when the first American restaurants opened here and we compared the classic ketchup bottle they favoured with our plastic tomatoes that we realised what a puny parody of American eating we'd been sold.
It was the red plastic tomato wot killed the town centre British eatery. The decision to skimp on the ketchup is up there with the 60s slum clearance programme in its influence on the Way We Live Now.
If only Mr Wimpy had studied Heinz's advertising he might have grasped the iconic status of the glass bottle. Even the difficulty of getting the damn stuff out of it becomes a virtue. In a 1968 American commercial, the bottle is shaken, struck and held upside down before reluctantly surrendering a tiny puddle of its contents. "It's slow. The slow ketchup," intones the dark brown voice-over.
In nearly three decades of advertising, that message has changed just once, when a squeezy container was introduced in 1986 with a Chris Tarrant bright yellow voice-over. The original bottle was retained, though, and within a year the slow ketchup was back, culminating in the 90s campaign in which a returning soldier was able to enjoy a satisfying snog with his wife to a pastiche of the Pointer Sisters' "Slowhand" while waiting for the egress of the ketchup.
And why is the ketchup so slow? Because each 15oz bottle is packed with the goodness of two pounds of tomatoes, of course. Like Cadbury's pint- and-a-half of full cream dairy milk, this is one of those equations which doesn't seem to add up. But doesn't the sacrifice of a quantity of tomatoes so extravagant it is well nigh impossible to extract the ketchup from its beautiful glass bottle somehow symbolise the world of plenty for which Eisenhower and Kennedy's America stood?
By the time the film Diner came out in 1982, with its famous scene of upturned ketchup bottles draining ever so slowly into other bottles, we understood. But it was too late. We looked at Kevin Bacon and Mickey Rourke and ached nostalgically for a past we never had in this country. Triple thick milkshakes, authentic r'n'b, fabulous chrome bumpers, sex, and full-strength tomato ketchup.
If their stuff was Kennedy and Otis Redding, our watered down version was Harold Macmillan and the Vernon Girls. And if you think this is fanciful, remember that not only did Cilla Black release a cover version in Britain of the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling", but she had the original hit. Almost unbelievable, but worth remembering when you wonder why we embraced so enthusiastically the Americans with their authentic pop music and their lovely glass bottles of ketchup.
Thanks to the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, Bradford.
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