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“Why’s this so good?” No. 35: Malcolm Gladwell on ketchup

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Malcolm Gladwell does so many things well as a feature writer that it’s embarrassing to mention them all. I’ll list a few of them anyway:

Malcolm Gladwell is astonishingly quotable. He writes graceful, intelligent sentences. But he’s also something better than quotable; he’s paraphrasable and anecdotable. He gives you words, ideas and stories drawn from ordinary life that you can recall and retell, and which also seem relevant to a huge range of conversations with unusually broad intellectual consequences. His language becomes portable in order to replicate itself.

Malcolm Gladwell is a master of misdirection and the slow play. He bluffs, demurs, head fakes and suddenly raises the stakes. His stories have threads that weave in and out, and he can fool you as to which thread is the “A” and which is the “B” story. He can fool you about his thesis, and even more astonishingly, he can fool you about whether or not he actually has one – in either direction.

Malcolm Gladwell is known, for better or worse, for books, stories, and essays that identify something counterintuitive. At first you think it’s like this, but really it’s like that. But his best feature writing, again, is better than that. Even as illustrative chunks fall out of them, the essays as a whole don’t come with easy, business-retreat-ready takeaways. They’re neither intuitive nor counterintuitive, but engage in acts of intuition, a playful oscillation between irreconcilable poles. They clarify your perceptions by revealing the inadequacy of your concepts. They are intelligence-games.

The last point, to me, is the most important. When Gladwell goes off the rails, as he does in “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted,” it’s usually because he sacrifices No. 3, the intelligence-game, to Nos. 2 and/or 1, storytelling and quotability.

My favorite Gladwell essay is “The Ketchup Conundrum,” published in The New Yorker’s Food Issue in September 2004. It is an ideal specimen of the three qualities referenced above. The title announces its paradoxical purpose, and the two-sentence deck its deceptively simple theme: “Mustard now comes in dozens of varieties. Why has ketchup stayed the same?”

The opening gambit – I don’t know whether it’s more helpful to think of Gladwell as a chess or a poker player, so I’ll mix my gaming metaphors – contains a perfectly symmetrical pair, one historical and one contemporary. The first is the story of Grey Poupon, and its unlikely reclamation of a sizable share of the mustard market from French’s through clever market segmentation and advertising. That elegant section on mustard serves as background for the essay’s apparent focus, ketchup entrepreneur Jim Wigon, who (we’re told) “wanted to create the Grey Poupon of ketchup,” called (appropriately) World’s Best Ketchup.

So far, so good. The article has established its context, and shifts into profile mode, with tasty anecdotes and descriptions of Wigon, his business, his customers, and especially his ketchup. In a local magazine, it would meander through another few admiring pages to make the case for Wigon. But this isn’t a local magazine; it’s a Gladwell profile in The New Yorker. Consequently, establishing the context never stops. It simply spirals outwards in search of more stories, more ideas, more room for intuitive play.

“The story of World’s Best Ketchup cannot properly be told without a man from White Plains, New York, named Howard Moskowitz,” Gladwell tells us next. Like children, we believe him. And Gladwell is even more taken with Moskowitz than with Wigon. He gives us every luminous detail we need – mannerisms, quotes, misdirections (some referencing the Byzantine Empire) – and countless pieces of information we don’t. Because it turns out Moskowitz isn’t some strange rabbi, historian, or philosophy professor, but a food-tester and market-researcher who created campaigns for Pepsi and Prego. And it also turns out the story of World’s Best Ketchup cannot properly be told without Pepsi and Prego precisely because the story of Pepsi and Prego is not the story of World’s Best Ketchup at all.

Here’s the titular ketchup conundrum, in a nutshell. Mustard, soda, pasta sauce all benefit from something that’s now intuitive, which Moskowitz helped re-formalize for the industrial food business: à chacun son goût, to each his own taste. Consequently, in food, it is better to be a pluralist than a Platonist. As Gladwell writes, “There was no such thing as the perfect Diet Pepsi. They should have been looking for the perfect Diet Pepsis.”

Ketchup is the exception that proves, tests, strains, and finally appears to break the rule. There is a perfect ketchup, and it appears to be Heinz. Ketchup (through an accident of history marvelously explained by another exquisite Gladwell interlocutor, food historian Andrew F. Smith) perfectly balances “the five fundamental tastes in the human palate: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami.” This is one of several reasons it appeals to picky young children (here comes a bit of evolutionary biology, in case the 19th-century history of ketchup wasn’t enough), because everything about ketchup screams out to the brain, “I am food, I am familiar, I am delicious, it is safe to eat me.” It’s at the age when in ancient human history children began to gather food for themselves that most stop being adventurous and start loving ketchup. And Heinz’s famous ketchup has the ideal balance of each flavor at a fundamental chemical level.

Now, maybe you had heard the word “umami” millions of times before 2004, doubtlessly because you’re friends with chefs or food scientists or avant-garde dining aficionados, or perhaps are one yourself. But I think, even if I cannot prove, that most people began talking about umami because of Malcolm Gladwell. It was certainly the first time I had heard it, and along with his just-so evo-bio anecdote about ketchup-loving toddlers, I did my fair share of spreading the gospel of umami to everyone I spoke to for the next year and a half.

So let’s look at where we’ve gone so far: We’ve destroyed food Platonism (it’s Gladwell’s word, not mine, although it is precisely the word I would use) in favor of food pluralism, only to reinstate it through the back door. It’s not a Platonic universal, but an accidental one – a curious byproduct of cooked tomato and vinegar that somehow hits on a kind of nutrient-diminished superfood.

Note: I can’t stand ketchup. Any ketchup. I think it’s disgusting, and always have. I was averse to it as a kid, and unlike almost every other one of my wide list of childhood prohibited foods, it never made it off that list. But I am riveted by the story of ketchup regardless, because Gladwell’s offered me a route, through history, science, and the words of men and women here and now, to understand these odd human beings around me who love the stuff.

And this is why Jim Wigon’s quixotic quest to compete with Heinz is doomed. Even if I might like his ketchup better than any other ketchup, or hot sauce, Sriracha or barbecue sauce (which really is probably as close to ketchup as brown Dijon mustard is to yellow mustard), he can’t get critical mass. Which in the food industry, is what pluralism means; not perfect, not universal, but a perfectly optimized segment who can be catered to accordingly.

“Happiness, in one sense,” Gladwell begins and then hedges, “is a function of how closely our world conforms to the infinite variety of human preference. But that makes it easy to forget that sometimes happiness can be found in having what we’ve always had and everyone else is having.” Because the story isn’t about ketchup but the nature and structure of both our desire and the world(s) we’ve erected around it.

Gladwell gestures towards the grander implications without driving them into the ground like fence posts. He resists the urge to buttress his story by quoting Andy Warhol on Coca-Cola: “All of the Cokes are the same, and all the Cokes are good.” (I myself can muster no resistance against such temptation.) Instead, he gives the last word to Moskowitz, the food scientist and market segmentation master, the hidden hero of his story, buried deep within its layers, whose final words contradict himself and Gladwell’s entire argument, even as they stand in for it: “I guess ketchup is ketchup.”

Tim Carmody (@tcarmody) writes about technology and media for Wired on its Epicenter blog and in the magazine. A recovering academic, he is also the resident bookfuturist at Snarkmarket.

For more from this collaboration with Longreads and Alexis Madrigal, check out the previous posts in the series. And stay tuned for a new shot of inspiration and insight every week.




3 trackbacks

  1. by Malcolm Gladwell « tl:dr on April 1, 2012 at 10:48 am

    [...] Carmody does a good job of detailing the many strengths of Gladwell’s journalism in the latest addition to Nieman Storyboard’s Why’s This So Good series (as well as coming up with a good [...]

  2. [...] 3. “‘Why’s this so good?’ No. 35: Malcolm Gladwell on ketchup” [...]

  3. [...] in which a journalist deconstructs a favorite piece of storytelling (some of the most popular: Tim Carmody on Malcolm Gladwell; Justin Ellis on David Grann and Sherlock Holmes), and the Annotation Tuesday! series, which [...]

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