Why Are U.S. Presidents So Obsessed With Ketchup?

A few weeks ago, America’s favorite condiment was splattered all over the headlines: Cassidy Hutchinson, a former White House employee, revealed in Congressional testimony that she had seen outgoing president Donald Trump throw a plateful of lunch on January 6, 2021, leaving gobs of ketchup dripping down the wall. Trump’s outburst instantly drew the attention of comedians and late-night hosts; Chelsea Handler joked that the scene probably looked like the end of a presidential playdate. But this wasn’t ketchup’s first Presidential scandal. Years before the condiment was making its undignified way towards federal carpeting, it was causing consternation in the halls of power. At issue was a seemingly ridiculous question: Is ketchup a vegetable?

 

 

The year was 1981. Diana Ross and Lionel Richie had the year’s top hit, filling the airwaves alongside Stevie Nicks, Electric Orchestra, and The Police. The public swooned at the royal marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. On Capitol Hill, though, a storm was brewing: Ronald Reagan’s budget cuts slashed funding for school lunch programs by more than 30 percent, and the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service was scrambling to meet federal nutritional requirements for the meals they served on a smaller budget. Vegetables were expensive, but the rules mandated that kids had to be served two portions of them at lunchtime. Maybe the department could save money by counting certain condiments as vegetables, including pickle relish and — significantly — tomato concentrate?

The USDA’s proposed changes never mentioned ketchup explicitly, but after they were released to the public, critics did the math and figured out that these new rules could effectively lead to ketchup being counted as a vegetable.

Congressional Democrats and the media alike seized on the story as a perfect example of the Reagan administration’s hypocrisy. What kind of President would ask Congress for an $33.8 billion increase in military spending and enact a 25 percent tax cut for the wealthy, while suggesting that low-income kids could get their nutritional needs met by a dollop of ketchup? In the New York Times, Washington correspondents reported on the “unsavory publicity” the proposed “ketchup rule” had attracted, with Democrats hailing it as “the Emperor’s New Condiments” and embarking on “a Dickensian field day of outrage and mockery.” According to historian Amy Bentley, Democratic Senators staged a lunch for the press that showcased what school lunches would look like under the new administration: “a tiny little hamburger patty, a slice of white bread, five or six French fries and some ketchup.”

 

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