When I say I’ll eat anything, I mean it. I’m the original omnivore, with (thankfully) zero food allergies, little squeamishness and a very low threshold for culinary boredom. When given the opportunity to dine on octopus, snails, crickets or Japanese fish spine snacks, I do so with relish. But actual relish? Ugh, pass.
I’m a condiment hater. Slathering ketchup, mustard and most of all, the abomination known as mayonnaise on perfectly good bread is incomprehensible to me. Ranch mania is completely over my head ― nine times out of 10, I won’t use any dressing on my salad, let alone slather it on hot wings or, shudder, pizza. I judge people who ask for steak or tartar sauce harshly and know we can never truly be friends.
Don’t get me wrong ― I love flavor. Scroll through my Instagram feed and you’ll see seasonings galore, on every kind of produce the farmers market has to offer and whatever protein I can get my hands on, whether it’s tofu or lamb. I live for spicy curries and floral teas and vegetable desserts. Discovering new, improbable flavor combinations is my favorite pastime. Just don’t bring a butter knife near my turkey on whole wheat.
I’ve gotten my share of side-eye and incredulous questioning from sub shops about my dry bread policy. And I get it: Most of the world is so condiment crazed, they’re inventing new ones every day.
As someone who loves food, all food, I’ve questioned it myself. After all, mayonnaise is made entirely of things I adore: eggs, oil, acid. Why would the combination of the three repulse me so much?
I blame Saturday morning TV.
Back when I was a kid, in addition to favorites like “Schoolhouse Rock,” ABC aired “The Bod Squad,” which features animated public service announcements about nutrition and hygiene geared toward kids. They are, in retrospect, a little wacky by today’s standards. There was one, and I remember all the words to this day, about making sure you chewed your food enough. Really, that was the entire message, as though the most daunting concern for children of the ’80s was not the AIDS epidemic or Reaganomics, but improperly masticated celery.
But the one that may have had the biggest effect on me was a song called “Don’t Drown Your Food.” It was an under-30-second spot in which a cartoon lifeguard (voiced by comedian Arnold Stang) talks about saving a baked potato from a sour cream tsunami and admonishes against the overuse of “mayo and ketchup and goop” (sorry, Gwyneth).
The closest thing to a rationale for this PSA is the lyric “It’s not fun to eat what you can’t even see,” which is arguable, as I’ve had quite a lot of fun in poorly lit bars and restaurants. Today, one might interpret such a stance as a war on hidden sugars, excess sodium or empty calories, but at the time (remember, it was the ’80s), the only food group we knew to be afraid of was fat; the obesity epidemic and mindfulness movement wouldn’t hit for a few more decades.
No, this wasn’t about nutrition. It was food-shaming, pure and simple. Using copious amounts of creamy dressing or sauces wasn’t simply unhealthy or gluttonous, it was barbaric. What else can you think when a hapless vegetable cries out for help as a wave of green goddess overtakes its salad bowl? There’s even a “yuck!” thrown into the refrain because, well, soggy food is gross.
That’s the message that reached me, anyway, and it’s been surprisingly effective. I’ve accepted that I will be a condiment minimalist for life. I might shake on some hot sauce or drizzle a little tzatziki, but my answer to “What sauces would you like with that?” is always going to be none. Even my bagel schmear is thin and controlled. In the raging hot dog war over mustard versus ketchup, I’ll forever be Switzerland.
My food philosophy has always been that anything can taste good when it’s prepared properly. Liver, anchovies, raw oysters, stinky cheese ― anything. Start with good ingredients, learn how to season properly, and bone up on a few kitchen techniques. You shouldn’t have to add a thing after that. Because, as the song says, “Food’s so much better that’s practically plain.”