Paint it red and call it fine Western dining

 

Here in the Western lands, there is said to be a cuisine called Tex-Mex, though some claim that Rocky Mountain oysters is the true Western soul food. Personally, I don't think a bull's scrotum is going to appear on the great tables of the world. I have searched for our authentic style and think I have found it, thanks to a simple device: You use the Ketchup Index.

Ketchup Index Three (KI-3). This is the highest level and it is assigned chiefly to fast-food franchises and a few deserving private establishments. The clue to a KI-3 is that ketchup comes spread on everything ordered. It dribbles from sesame seed buns, decorates French fries, oozes toward the apple pie. Ketchup pumps are scattered strategically in case the food has learned to do the backstroke. A few pumps and any food with a strong instinct for survival is doomed. These fine Western food emporiums are found along Interstates and main drags in cities. They are popular places for cowboys, ranchers and old-time Westerners who can get their 3,000 calories for $3.99.

Ketchup Index Two (KI-2). The food in a KI-2 restaurant is as good as that in a KI-3 place, but it is served without ketchup applied by professionals. You do it your way. The clue to a KI-3 rating is every table, counter and flat surface is strewn with red plastic squeeze bottles.

There are two things that KI-2 and KI-3 restaurants have in common: They are both found on Interstates and multiple-lane streets with a lot of traffic lights. The other is that their ketchup has no name. It is served in plain red squeeze bottles that have been filled from large carboys shipped to the restaurants in trailer trucks. The carboys are filled from railroad tankers. It is not true that reputable ketchup-makers are ashamed to admit their product goes to such places. KI-2 and KI-3 restaurants demand generic packaging so their competition will not discover the secret ingredients of their sauce. Both purveyors of Western food also provide ketchup in plastic or foil packets in case one has to add a little extra to fine-tune the meal.

Ketchup Index One (KI-1). The tip-off to a KI-1 rating is the ketchup has a name. A true Westerner knows he is in a bad place. Sometimes the food cannot be made to taste like ketchup -- and it's expensive to boot. A K-1 restaurant puts name bottles of ketchup on each table and sometimes has a sign outside that says "Fine Food." A Western connoisseur can tell with a glance how much a place will set him back. A bottle of Kuner's, for example, indicates a cheaper price than a Del Monte bottle. A Heinz bottle is a sure sign you can barely afford being there. Not only that, you have to hunker down in the booth and slowly plop-plop ketchup on your order. At least a Kuner's place has fast ketchup. Another thing about a K-1 place is the waiters worry about their cooks. From the concern of a waiter's question: "Is everything all right?" it would seem only drunks and incompetents cook for them

K-3 or K-2 restaurants never ask; they know the food attains the high standards of the Western taste.

Ketchup Index Zero (KI-0). Westerners try to stay away from these places. Ketchup cannot be seen anywhere. They sometimes have unpronounceable foreign names instead of Kountry Kitchen or Kozy Korner. To add insult to this injury, a Western gourmet must ask for ketchup. Sometimes when this happen, it arrives in a covered bowl with a serving spoon. They claim what is served the connoisseur is called "catsup", a Malayan spiced fish sauce. In one place, the chef arrives with two tomatoes and a blender on a tray.

It is said that in parts of Europe, probably France, should a Westerner ask for ketchup, two men with no necks in chef's outfits pick up the offender and throw him out. Just as KI-3 restaurants never ask if the food is all right, they know it is perfect because they put the ketchup on it to meet the exacting standards of the Western palate. K-0 places never ask because they want to avoid comments on the lousy taste of their bland and weird un-ketchuped food. These restaurants simply cater to the foreigners who have come to the West and thus have no appreciation for Western food.

And where do I eat? I'm a KI-3, sometimes a KI-2. You, too?

Rob Pudim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He closely observes all things Western from his home in Boulder, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.