Nature photography, political rants, and Martyman laughs from the ten-time award-winning author of "Cool Creatures, Hot Planet," "Endangered Edens," and the "Time Is Irreverent" series.

Ketchup gets no respect

Marty’s photo of the day #3036: I took this photo in a tiny town in western Spain. The below excerpt from my first book, Cool Creatures, Hot Planet: Exploring the Seven Continents, explains the significance of the shot—and how a simple request can offend an entire country and get you fired:

We ambled back to the Hotel Carvajal. Unlike our austere room, the hotel’s restaurant was elegant and probably the best in the area. We were early, by Spanish standards, and people were just beginning to trickle in. Within the hour, all the tables would be full.

Once the proprietor seated us, a young woman waited on us. Most of the time, Deb and I found communicating with younger people to be easier than communicating with older people. This time the opposite was true—our waitress soon grew frustrated with us.

After watching Deb place her order with considerable pointing and repeating, I decided to make things easy for our waitress by ordering the five-course dinner special. I had no idea what the meal included but figured Saint Ambrose’s wisdom about Rome would adapt quite well to our current situation: “When in Spain, eat as the Spaniards do.”

Placed first on our table was the traditional loaf of hard, crusty bread. I hadn’t seen any butter since arriving in Spain but couldn’t see any harm in requesting some. I looked up butter in our Spanish book and showed the word to Deb.

The next time our waitress walked by, Deb asked, “Mantequilla por favor?”

The woman stopped dead in her tracks, shot us an icy glare, and repeated in a shrill voice, “Mantequilla!”

A man sitting with his family at the table next to us halted his conversation and craned his neck to stare at us.

Apparently, we had just insulted the entire country of Spain. Although the waitress acquiesced to our wishes, she defiantly deposited the butter on our table as if it were a forty-pound sack of flour.

Minutes later, she returned with a bowl of soup and a tray full of sausages. She tilted the tray to show me its contents. Although I was trying to eat like a Spaniard, a news story I had seen in the United States about environmentally destructive hog farms flashed through my brain. I mimed a polite “No, thank you.”

The waitress scowled at me for a moment, then thrust the bowl of soup in front of my face.

“I think the soup is mine,” said Deb.

I knew the waitress couldn’t understand, so I took the bowl and handed it to my wife.

The young woman’s eyes grew wide. She clenched her teeth and stormed off to the kitchen! A muffled but lively conversation drifted through the doors. The next time she entered the dining room, I noticed her deliberately avoiding eye contact with me.

“I think our waitress fired us,” I said.

“No, she just got confused,” said Deb.

When the next course arrived, the proprietor served us, and the waitress stayed as far away as possible.

“Oh, my god, you’re right!” said Deb with a wry smile. “She did fire us!”

Our meal progressed smoothly until the proprietor served me a plate of fried potatoes. I took a bite. Not bad, but they needed something—ketchup.

I knew I should have eaten the potatoes plain, but as the person paying for the meal, I felt it was my prerogative to season my food how I pleased. When I asked Deb for language assistance, she shot me frosty glare that even the waitress couldn’t beat. This was something I’d have to do myself.

The next time the proprietor checked on us, I requested in English, “Ketchup, please?”

A moment passed before the man figured out what I wanted. Then a look of revulsion flowed over his face. Roughly interpreting his Spanish words, he said, “I’m sorry sir, but we do not serve caaatch-up in this restaurant!”

What is it about ketchup that is offensive? Even in the United States, people get upset if you put ketchup on their dishes. It’s just an innocent concoction of tomato sauce and spices! No one ever feels insulted if you season with salt or pepper. Ketchup manufacturers need a better public relations firm.

In fairness to the proprietor, cultural differences could have caused me to misinterpret the tone of his voice. Perhaps he wasn’t upset with me for insulting his chef and was just disappointed that he didn’t have a generous supply of the red delicacy on hand. Yeah, that must have been it.

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