The Problem With Ketchup Leather

It's not the taste.

T.tseng / Flickr

I didn’t know that burgers were broken. This week I was startled to learn otherwise. “Ketchup leather,” declares a Tech Insider “Innovation” headline on the matter, “is the solution to soggy burgers we’ve been waiting for.”

So many questions. Are soggy burgers really a problem? Do they require a solution? And is ketchup leather—which is just a square of spiced, dehydrated tomato paste set atop a burger to melt like cheese—really the answer? Have we in fact been waiting for such a savior?

Apparently so, if you believe the hype. At Foodbeast, Peter Pham wonders if  ketchup squares “might change burgers forever.” Over at Mashable, desiccated tomato becomes the “missing key” to their enjoyment.

The technology critic Evgeny Morozov calls this sort of thinking “solutionism”—the belief that all problems can be solved by a single and simple technological solution. The “problem” of being a living creature who has to eat and, therefore, who must take breaks from working can be “solved” by Soylent, which takes both the decision-making and the prep/fetch time out of eating. The “problem” of finding and using a regulated taxi service can be “solved” by Uber, which offers easier access to cars for hire.

Morozov is concerned about solutionism because it recasts social conditions that demand deeper philosophical and political consideration as simple hurdles for technology. The availability of certain types of solutions—the app-driven “sharing economy” and so forth—make them seem like the right solutions for problems just because they are available as solutions.

But solutionism has another, subtler downside: It trains us to see everything as a problem in the first place. Not just urban transit or productivity, but even hamburgers. Even ketchup!

The fact that tech rags like Tech Insider and Mashable are covering ketchup leather as technology or innovation exemplifies the issue. When presented as a solution, ketchup leather demands that a problem exist. And so we invent one—sogginess, for example.

In truth, what’s really going on at Plan Check, the Los Angeles restaurant credited with “solving” the burger problem through ketchup leather, is something far more modest—and more interesting—than  solutionism allows.

Specifically, an ancient food-preparation technique, dehydration, is being applied in a novel and clever way. There’s no problem whatsoever, and certainly not one solved by dried slaps of tomato paste. If your burgers are soggy, it probably means they’re not being cooked to proper temperature. Some folks love their meat medium-rare, but a medium or well-done burger makes for better hand-edible cooked sandwiches (and also better protects you from the risk of food contamination).

When seen from a culinary rather than a technological vantage point, the ketchup-leather technique doesn’t solve a problem so much as it offers a different way of experiencing ketchup on burgers. The pleasure of a cheeseburger comes from the hot patty’s ability to melt and meld with the cheese, yielding a glorious merger of flavors. When squeezed or even spread, condiments must either be applied to the  bun or atop the patty. Both approaches resist incorporating the flavors into the burger itself. By dehydrating tomato paste, Plan Check is able to create a thin layer of ketchup flavor that reconstitutes into the burger like cheese.

It also serves an ornamental and exhibitionist purpose, of course. Anyone who’s made meatloaf knows that getting tomato flavor into ground beef is a “solved problem,” as it were. But the delight of watching ketchup melt like cheese is one that burger lovers are justified in wanting to experience. To encounter familiar materials in new ways is one of the delights of dining.

But to call ketchup leather a solution to the problem of burgers is to miss the point. When simple, deliberate technique becomes recast as innovative problem-solving, it seems to respect and even exalt cookery. Even here innovation can flourish, in the humble home of the hamburger! The same is true of our tendency to call any sort of clever idea a hack—“hack your burger with ketchup leather.” In truth, these moves have a different  effect: They reincorporate subjects like hamburgers into the domain (and therefore the values) of the contemporary technology industry, rather than allowing them to remain just what they are. In this case, foodstuffs. Burgers. Lunch.

It may seem like this sort of reframing is harmless, and that criticism makes one a pedant or a spoilsport. But there are real consequences to allowing ourselves to talk about condiment manipulation with the same language of innovation and disruption we use for driverless cars or workplace automation. There are molecular gastronomists and food scientists, to be sure, but drying tomatoes in an oven does not turn a chef into a condiment engineer.

When our encounters with solutionism become so pervasive as to infect even ordinary things like hamburgers, it should give us serious pause. These aren’t harmless verbal frames. They are signs of our willingness to allow a certain kind of technological thinking to take over all other thinking. And that’s a real problem, in the sense that word used to mean, and still could.