“Pass the ketchup,” she said softly. I grabbed the glass bottle of Heinz 57 in front of my plate and scooted it across the table towards her. I watched her tip the bottle over, watched her wait for the thick red substance to drip onto her hash browns. It was 12:30 in the morning. I was eating dinner, and she was having breakfast.
“Yeah. I think it was called The Ketchup Conundrum. It was in The New Yorker. It’s probably one of the best articles I’ve ever read. The guy writes thousands of words about ketchup and convinces you it’s the most interesting subject in the world.”
“What’s it about?”
“It’s about how it came to be that there are, like, 40 different kinds of mustard in the supermarket aisle—yellow, stone ground, dijon, and so on—but only one variety of ketchup. I honestly can’t even do the thing justice. He’s describing the marketing strategy of mustard companies, the food science of ketchup, and the whole time you are on the edge of your seat, just riveted. He’s a goddamn genius of storytelling.”
“Well you make it sound pretty interesting,” she says, lifting a forkful of matchstick potatoes to her mouth. “I guess I’ll have to read it.”
“You have to. But, you should probably keep in mind that the whole thing might just be total bullshit.”
She gave me a furled brow with a smile.
“I thought you said it was really good?”
“It is. But I don’t know if it’s true.”
“No, well, I mean I don’t think he made up the facts. But I don’t know if the story he weaves is true. How the hell would anyone know? I mean, before he wrote this piece, no one is even aware of the fact that there is a ‘Ketchup Conundrum.’”
“Well, you said he is trying to figure out why there are more varieties of mustard than ketchup, right?”
“Yes, but is that really a conundrum that needs to be solved? What if it’s just a historical accident? No one looks at the fact that Pluto is tiny and says, ‘It’s a conundrum! Why are there 8 reasonably sized planets and then this one tiny planet?’ No, people just accept that some rocks in space are smaller than others as a matter of chance. There’s no deep mystery to explain.”
“So I shouldn’t bother reading it?”
“No, you definitely should. Master storytelling.”
“Yeah. It sort of reminds me of when I saw David Sedaris speaking—you know who he is, right?”
“Yes. I know who David Sedaris is.”
“So I went to see him live once. Pretty sure it was before we were together. At one point he was explaining to the audience how tough it is to write humorous essays for The New Yorker because they feel the need to ‘fact check’ every little detail. He said he got flagged for describing ‘cinder block sized boxes of condoms from Costco.’ Apparently the fact checker had looked up how big the condom boxes are at Costco and they were actually quite a bit smaller. He said, ‘They sure felt like cinder block sized boxes when I went to check out!’”
“I’m confused about what you are saying. The New Yorker should have fact checked Gladwell’s piece more?”
“No, not really. Again, I don’t think the facts were the problem. It was the story. It’s all so speculative. But it’s passed off as some amazing discovery about the world that Gladwell has made.”
The straw had floated to the top and threatened to teeter off of the edge of the cup. As she propped her elbows on the table, I could sense that things had changed. Previously we’d been having a conversation. Now I was holding court, and she was kindly playing the roll of enthralled listener.
I continued, “It just seems like when it comes to nonfiction, you are sort of stuck. If you just stick to the facts, without much speculation, the story is going to be dry and uninteresting. Might as well write a journal article. But that means that in order to make it more interesting, you have to speculate, which lowers the odds that you are telling a true story. And this is before you even get to the usual human biases and the unreliability of memory. Like, everything we remember is basically a story our brain has retold itself a thousand times before. A never-ending game of telephone between past and future selves.”
“Not impossible. Just saying those two things seem to be in tension. Maybe fiction isn’t literally ‘true.’ But maybe it’s more intellectually honest. The author isn’t trying to take advantage of that little part of our lizard brain that lights up whenever we hear about something that is ‘strange but true’. They are admitting, from the start, that this is all made up. And in spite of that, entertaining us.”
“Does what matter?”
“If Gladwell’s story about the ‘Ketchup Conundrum’ is true or false. I mean, does it affect your life in any practical way? Does it affect how you buy ketchup or mustard?”
“Not really. But it’s more the principle. It’s the idea that we, as a society, are just content hearing and nodding along to these ‘just-so’ stories. Maybe it doesn’t matter with ketchup, but if the issue was something that affected public policy, like guns, it seems like it could be more problematic.”
“We live in the era of fake news. Our reality is carefully constructed by our choices of social media apps, podcasts, and where we choose to live. We cannot agree, as a country, on literally anything. I just wonder if the sins of Malcolm Gladwell are a little further down the list of issues that we have to be most concerned about.”
“Maybe you are right.”
Then I reach for the mustard, self-aware that I’m one of the only people I know who also eats my fries with mustard.
“So should I read it?”
I look at her, confused for a moment. “The Ketchup Conundrum?”
“Oh, yeah. Yes, you should definitely read it. It’s a masterclass in storytelling. Just, you know, grain of salt and all.”
“The Ketchup Conundrum, Conundrum,” she said in her most serious tone.
“Exactly,” I responded, playing along. “Maybe Malcolm should write a piece about that.”