And God said, “Let there be condiments.”

Humans have made a lot of progress since the dawn of time.  Granted, it’s been slow going over the millennia, but we clawed and scratched our way to developing language, writing, agriculture, democracy, penicillin, duct tape, toilet paper, and those nifty air fresheners to hang on the rearview mirror of the car.

We’re lucky to be alive in the 21st century.  Every day we reap the spoils of our industrious ancestors.  And for me, hands down, one of our most remarkable achievements as a species is how we’ve come up with so many different condiments for our food.

I’m serious.  This doesn’t get talked about enough.  Someone needs to do a TED Talk on the topic.  We take condiments for granted: Ranch will be in the fridge. Ketchup packets will be at the bottom of the fast food bag.  A bottle of relish will be on the table at the cookout.  It’s all just there, seemingly as natural as the sun and the sky and the moon.

There’s something for everyone

This isn’t hyperbole.  Most of our time is spent either working, sleeping or eating, and condiments have made the latter a whole lot better.  Think about it.  Eating must have been really boring before us modern folks had the vast amount of today’s flavor-enhancing options.

We now have hundreds, perhaps thousands of different condiments available, with some available in multiple varieties.

Take mustard.  Beyond the basic yellow, we have hot chili wasabi, creole, black truffle, white wine and jalapeno, smokey bacon maple, habenero honey, blue cheese herb.  The options go on and on.

And what about mayo?  There are delicious offshoots of the classic recipe — zesty citrus, roasted chipotle, avocado oil, curry.  Aoili, mayo’s cousin, offers us a bunch of other lip-smacking options like sundried tomato, lemon pepper, roasted garlic, caramelized apple, and raspberry.  Mayo purists may scoff at the idea of fruit-infused options, but I’m all for them.

Go shopping and you can choose from pesto, toasted sesame oil, Worcestershire sauce, Sriracha, Harissa, chutney, Thousand Island dressing, hummus, Hoisin sauce, tartar sauce, Tabasco, soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, jerk sauce, steak sauce, chili sauce.

I’m not a hot sauce guy.  I’m a wimp and have no problem admitting it.  But for the brave of heart (or what a friend calls “culinary masochists”) there are countless way-off-the-beaten path varieties of liquid heat: hot honey, smoked habanero cherrywood, Caribbean reef shark scotch, banana and chipotle, cranberry orange clove, fermented cherry, pineapple lemongrass.  I’m sweating as I type that sentence.

Hot sauce brand names can be funny.  Ass In the Tub, Belligerent Blaze, Brenda’s Bootie Burner, Delicious Suffering.  Heck, I’d start a hot sauce company just to come up with a wacky name.  “Try some Lee’s Lunatic Liquid today.”

It’s all about convenience

Imagine yourself sitting down for a meal in dreary 16th-century England.  Not only is there the horrible weather and no pro sports to watch on TV, but you’ll also be staring at the same bland fare you had yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that, and … oh, pretty much every day of your life.

You might be looking at a plate of any combination of cheese, meat, potatoes, fruits and vegetables, lots of bread, even honey.  On the surface that isn’t so bad of a spread.  But where’s the Sweet Baby Ray’s Barbecue Sauce or Chick-fil-A Sauce?  And don’t get me started about mayo — that king of condiments wasn’t invented until 1756.  Ketchup didn’t arrive on the scene until 1812.

Some cultures were ahead of the flavor curve.  Hundreds and hundreds of years ago in the Middle East, hungry people were cooking with paprika, garlic, turmeric, onions, and other spices.  I’m sure it was tasty and all, but they couldn’t just pop over to the corner store for a bottle of Shatta (a sauce popular in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and Palestine) to give some kick to, say, roasted goat or lamb.

Convenience is the key issue here.  It’s not as if the flavor combinations of modern condiments weren’t potentially available in the past.  The problem was that you had to make everything from scratch.  Which means you had to somehow secure the spices, the vinegar, the oil, and whatever other ingredients you needed.

Then you had to actually make it: Grind the spices, mix them with the oil, build a fire, and cook the concoction.  All of those tasks were challenging.  And we’re generally a lazy species.  Now we can drive to the market, grab a bottle of this or that, throw down the credit card and go eat.  Easy.

Let’s get personal

I know a guy who broke up with his girlfriend because she loved mayo.  No B.S.  She was kind, beautiful, and intelligent.  She shared the same hobbies.  They laughed together all the time.  On the surface, they were kinda the perfect couple.  But mayo grosses him out so much, he can’t even look at it.  He tried to make the relationship work, but after six months of seeing her slather mayo on sandwiches and dipping veggies in it, he had to say goodbye.

This story brings to mind the concept of free will — do we have any choice over which condiments we love or despise?

For example, I’ve only recently become a pepper fan, which quickly transformed me into a pepper snob.  Now, I only use it if peppercorns come out of a pepper grinder.  None of this shaking out pre-ground pepper business for me.

We all have tightly held condiment beliefs.  So much so that, for example, debates about mayonnaise versus Miracle Whip can stir the emotions like a contentious political discussion.  In fact, in my family, we’ve come close to shouting matches over which spread is better.

Gimme a side of philosophy with that sandwich

Why did it take me so long to come around to pepper?  Did my parents suppress the desire, or was it encoded in my genes that I’d need 60-plus years on the planet to be partial to it?

(You may be asking, is pepper officially a condiment?  More about that in a moment.)

As I mentioned, hot sauce is a definite no-go for me.  I can’t take it.  I don’t understand why folks drown their wings in super-spicy sauce.  I’m not brave enough to try it, and depending on your perspective, that could be a flaw in my masculinity or simply how my taste buds developed.

Speaking of wings, I’m a dipping guy.  Either ranch or blue cheese.  I generally order them plain.  There’s no way on God’s green earth I’d try Buffalo, Sweet Chili, Nashville Hot, Honey Garlic, Mango Habanero, Ghost Pepper, or Lemon Pepper (but maybe BBQ or garlic parmesan).

Please don’t judge me.  I’m not the most sophisticated eater.  I like my fries with ranch or ketchup (or is it catsup?).  The most avant-garde condiment thing I’ll do is use mayo on sandwiches that traditionally call for mustard, like corned beef on rye or a Reuben.  Call me Lee the Foodie Rebel.

My condiments preferences may be conservative, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m conservative in other aspects of my life.  Which makes me wonder — is there any correlation between one’s choice of condiments and their hobbies, their politics, their faith, their careers, their taste in music?

For example, do free-solo rock climbers who worship the Grateful Dead tend to use hot sauces that cause their eyes to burn?  Do insurance salespeople who worship Merle Haggard tend to prefer plain yellow mustard?

What are condiments, anyway?

I once worked with a woman who considered peanut butter a condiment.  Huh?  If you look it up, PB is generally considered a “food”, and more specifically a “spread”, since it’s spreadable with a knife or spoon.  But my co-worker felt it’s a condiment since she used it to enhance the flavor of other foods: bananas, crackers, celery.

Maybe she’s on to something.  I mean, peanut sauce is certainly a condiment.  I think we’d all agree since it comes in a bottle and it’s pourable.  Applesauce is pourable, too, so maybe that should officially count as a condiment?

And to get back to pepper, perhaps it should be in the condiment category, as it enhances the taste of food.

But I guess it doesn’t really matter what is or isn’t a condiment.  Society is already too divided.  We don’t need another controversy to create further dissension.  We don’t need congresspeople yelling at each other over whether hummus should be in the same category as Siracha sauce.  Let’s just enjoy our meals together, however you like to add flavor to them.


Addendum from LSomerbyCooke …

Did you know that I once took on Bobby Flay? Check it out …


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