The Essential Condiments for Every Kitchen

When they’re not killing Applebee’s and trading their birthright like Esau in the Bible for avocado toast, Millennials, it is said, love sauces.

Now, I’m not a Millennial (Gen-X through and through, so get off my lawn), but I am strongly of the mind that food is made or broken by the sauce applied to it. If you don’t believe me, come on over and I’ll serve you unsauced pasta and salad with no dressing on it.

So we’ve established that when it comes to food that tastes good, practice safe eating, use a condiment.

But what condiments should be in absolutely everyone’s kitchen? Well, one man’s opinion, but…

A-1 Steak Sauce

Put down the pitchforks, I’m not suggesting you put this stuff on actual steak. Back during my married days, my then-wife splurged on a $20-a-pound grass-fed ribeye from Whole Foods and grilled it deliciously rare on a lazy Reno summer night that also happened to be my birthday.

And she said to me, “if you put A-1 on this, I am divorcing you.”

So while it wasn’t quite steak au poivre, I got to enjoy a literal cut above the usual Cheapo Beefo from Walmart (which should absolutely be drowned in A-1) with nothing more than butter and cracked black pepper. The meal was better than the marriage.

So why did I lead the list with A-1 if I just explicitly disavowed the purpose stated in its name?

Easy. Because for so many other culinary applications, the stuff is a nice way to add a slightly piquant depth of flavor, whether it’s to cheap steak, a burger (oh man, the stuff is awesome on burgers), or—if five-year-old me could be put in a time machine to offer his opinion, on rice pilaf. Y’know the stuff that comes in a box that even your working class suburban mom couldn’t screw up?

I drowned it in A-1 and loved it.

But A-1’s signature is in a dish I like to call Bachelor Chow (and shut up, I’ve been calling it that since three years before Futurama’s pilot episode aired.) BC is, in essence, a twist on a deconstructed shepherd’s pie when you get right down to it:

Take one pound of ground pork, brown it in a skillet, add a bag of frozen corn (I think that’s a pound too), let the corn heat through—using frozen means there will be a lot less water, but you can use a thoroughly drained can of corn if you don’t like flavor—and then hit it with a solid half cup of A-1, stirring to coat everything in the skillet.

What you’ve got is my ultimate comfort food, the stuff I eat when I need to remind myself that life doesn’t suck.

Sweet Baby Ray’s BBQ Sauce

Barbecue, no matter where in the South you get it, is my favorite food.

And it does have to be the South, even as I’m using a very generous definition of South to include every state that even so much as made noises about joining the Confederacy even if they ultimately stayed Union, so nobody in Missouri or Kentucky can get angry at me about it.

I love smoky molasses-based sauce. I love Memphis dry ribs and wet ribs alike, and I’m staying WAY outside that debate, Memphians. Feed me on your dime and your style becomes my favorite until the other guy feeds me on his. I love western Carolina vinegar-based sauces and Georgia mustard-based sauces and I had a bourbon-based sauce at a place in Lexington once upon a time that made me fall in love with Kentucky Q. And Japanese yakitori? Barbecue, reader-san.

Hell, I found heaven at a Cook-Out in Williamsburg, Virginia once, although that one is a story for another day about a girl and…ahem, I digress.

But if you’re not the type to make it down to Reno for the annual Rib Cook-off with enough money to buy some southern pitmaster out of their supply of bottled sauce, you need something to add a touch of barbecue flavor to your own kitchen. And personally, I’d put my money on Sweet Baby Ray’s (and no, I’m not being paid to say that.) Smoky, sweet, not too chemical-ish for mass market. When I grill pork, that’s the sauce I go for when I’m not going for applesauce.

Sweet Pickle Relish
(yes, I’m originally from Boston. How did you know?)

Is there a better “balance with sweetness” condiment in the world than pickle relish? Short of a ghost pepper, there is no pleasant spiciness that can’t be deliciously offset with the stuff.

As this here site’s name implies, I eat a lot of garbage food. And “stuff on a roller at 7-Eleven” is practically a food group from where I’m sitting.

And there is no condiment better suited for everything from a Spicy Bite with the texture of marbles stuck into a casing because it’s been on the roller too long to a genuine deep-fried hot Italian sausage…

…yes, really. There was a guy at the Club Cal-Neva ages ago in Reno who used to take the spicy Italian sausage, poke a couple of holes in it to keep it from going kaboom, then toss that sucker in a deep fryer, yank it out with some tongs after a couple minutes, stick a thermometer in it “in case the board of health shows up”, then slam dunk that sucker onto a bun.

And it was an Italian sausage that was spicy in a way that says “You no likes-a de spice, I kick-a you ass” in Chico Marx’s accent.

It went perfectly with sweet relish. I watched the Browns win me some money in the 2002 playoffs when they covered the 8.5-point spread against Pittsburgh, my first big score in that casino, and I’ll never forget it.

Ketchup Is For Children

Ketchup should be kept on hand if and only if you’ve got kids. Or, I dunno, if you own a deep fryer and you’re a potato farmer or a McDonald’s franchisee eating your own profits.

Under all other circumstances, ketchup should be banned from your kitchen, because there are exactly zero uses for it besides getting fussy kids to eat food they don’t like, or to dip fries into because as Stompin’ Tom Connors famously sang, “Ketchup loves potatoes.”

The problem with ketchup is that it is a nuclear bomb for food. It overpowers and annihilates anything it touches with its combination of cloying high-fructose corn syrup sweetness and aggressively acidic tomato and vinegar notes.

Ketchup ultimately derives its raison d’etre from sauces like Roman garum, a fermented fish monstrosity (not that I’m against fish sauce on principle, but garum…maybe I’ll write that article someday, but I’m already at over 1100 words here…)

Garum, and later ketchup, are really at their best when they’re destroying the taste of low-quality food that might be a little past its sell-by date. Or a lot past it.

Sure, it works on fries—what is a french fry but a tabula rasa with salt on it—and kids love it precisely because their little tastebuds haven’t grown up enough to like food that tastes like food.

But it should otherwise be banned from your kitchen.

And while putting ketchup on a hot dog isn’t a total dealbreaker with me if you’re cute enough…right. Story for another day.

Point is, put down the ketchup and slowly back away.

In Conclusion

Man, this could become a running series, couldn’t it? I wanted to keep the first one basic, but as this compendium of trash panda cuisine makes its way around the world, we could talk soy sauce, ponzu, Thai fish sauce, and gods know what-all else, so stay tuned for that!