De Condimentis (3)

By: Tom Nealon
September 29, 2010


Click on the image to blow it up to full size.

1. I’ve largely ignored anything whose primary purpose is to be spread on bread (or toast if you’re English). Your nut butters, Nutella, fluff, jams, jellys, marmalades, etc. Perhaps they can be dealt with alone someday – perhaps in a dark alley behind a bakery, late some night…

2. Sauces have a propensity to turn feral, ranging beyond their accustomed category to act as condiments or even ingredients. Some sauces that have turned feral: BBQ, honey mustard, fish sauce (there are too many fish sauces to categorize, and they are used in too many ways, but what’s more feral than uncategorizability?), salsa, sweet-and-sour, mole, gravy. Pesto is not yet feral, but it’s curious. Tomato sauce, too, shows evidence of turning feral, but as yet its feral uses are limited to bread sticks and fried cheese.

3. Sauces that have been dumbed down into mere condiments include bottled salad dressing, jar mayonnaise, Russian dressing.

4. Chutney, as a class, defies categorization (some are sauces, while others have turned feral).

5. Marmite is an ingredient for a dish that doesn’t exist.

6. Cream is an ingredient — unless you routinely drink cream, in which case it’s a food.

7. Thousand island dressing is a sauce not dumbed down, but invented to be, a condiment (Russian dressing + relish = nothing dumb about that).


MORE CONDIMENTS: Series Introduction | Fish Sauce | Diagram of Condiments vs. Sauces, etc. | Hot Sauce | Vinegar | Drunken Vinegar | Balsamic Vinegar | Food History | Barbecue Sauce | Butter | Mustard | Sour Cream | Maple Syrup | Salad Dressing | Gravy


What do you think?

  1. Chef Nealon, can you elaborate on the positioning of pico de gallo? It strikes me as a clear relish, which would place it within the condiment circle, or perhaps in between condiments and pickles (though of course no part of the pico de gallo has been pickled — that’s just a phonic coincidence). But I do not see how it bleeds into sauces, as sauces, I would think, must necessarily have the capacity to “bleed,” as it were, whereas the pico de gallo is merely a collection of small solids — not a sauce at all.

    Speaking of sauce, have I missed salsa on your platter? Surely you have a position on salsa. For my money, salsa is a food, though I recognize that as a personal quirk. I think most would put it as a condiment, though. Just ask the taco.

    In any case, my hat is off to you for thinking this through so thoroughly. Somebody had to.

  2. Interesting – pico de gallo is well within the big green condiment circle, but I see what you mean about its sauciness. Originally I had a rule that sauces had to undergo some sort of chemical change (cooking, emulsifying) which had ruled pico out. I may have to move it south to the pickle/condiment border and off of sauce entirely.

    Salsa is up there on the sauce/condiment border and noted as a “feral sauce”. It probably should be moved closer to food – it’s definitely the sauce that’s closest to a main course, other than maybe a really good Espagnole or demi-glace.

    Thanks, Dan!

  3. Oh of course, there’s salsa. Indeed I did miss it, and I think your original thinking there was sound, even as foody as it is.

    A question about condiments: Does something have to exist in the open air to be a condiment? Let me explain: I think of condiments as being added to a sandwich or burger or hot dog or taco or some other creation — and it always has an escape hatch, even in a sandwich, if it wants to get out. But I eat burritos nearly every day, and when my burrito preparer puts salsa into my burrito, doesn’t that make it an ingredient? After all, it’s no longer in my control, it’s delivered with the original order. Somehow, intuitively, it strikes me that the open-ness of sandwiches is part of what makes a condiment a condiment.

    Just a thought. Forgive me if I’m treading old ground — I haven’t read your other two condimentis entries yet. I’ll go do that now!

  4. Condiments have to be user controlled – definitely. If you order a burrito and it has salsa on it, it’s a sauce. If you open your burrito (which I never do, even if they bungled it – I suck at putting them back together again. Then again, I can barely fold a letter and put it in an envelope.) to add some hot sauce – or even more salsa – it’s a condiment.

    Don’t worry, I never get tired of talking about burritos.

  5. Only a fool opens a professionally wrapped burrito. “A burrito opener and his burrito are soon parted.”

    But your response brings up an interesting thought. Imagine one tub of freshly made salsa on the counter between the burrito maker and the burrito eater. The maker makes the burrito, ladling on a portion of salsa — clearly a sauce, and an ingredient, yes? (Unless I’m misunderstanding your definition of ingredient.) She gives me my burrito, and now I grab the ladle and ladle just a smidgen of salsa over the top of my burrito. Messy, perhaps, and I wouldn’t do that, but this is a hypothetical. In that case, it’s…a condiment? Or a sauce? But then I take a bite, and as I’m wont to do, I begin pouring a little salsa the bitten end of my burrito before each subsequent bite.

    Clearly a condiment, in this case.

    So how is it that the same substance, held in the same unmoved tub, served with the same ladle, can be two separate things? It seems impossible, and yet it’s clearly true!

    Something to win bar bets by, Tom.

  6. I’d like a woodcut of that scenario – “Diner and chef battling for control of the meal”. As soon as she relinquishes control of the burrito, it’s done and anything you add to it is a condiment. If you added a little before she wrapped it up and pronounced it finished, it would be a sauce and you would be a sous chef.

    In my universe an ingredient is more fundamental – items that would not normally be eaten alone, but only as an ingredient in a dish.

  7. I’d like to see the same information in this brilliant Venn diagram plotted on a timeline or some other kind of chart that would let us see condiments (e.g., salsa) turning into sauces and sauces (e.g., mayonnaise) into condiments…

    PS: When you add bananas to your cereal, does that make bananas a condiment?

  8. “…it would be a sauce and you would be a sous chef.”

    This made me laugh out loud.

    Very well, your point is made and I accept it. But now I have another question, though I’ll try to be brief (it’s now more than an hour after your lecture has ended, and you’re clearly eager to get back to your hotel to order room service). If I put sliced bananas in my cereal, do they become a condiment? In that sense, how are they qualitatively different from, say, pico de gallo? Both are just chopped up bigger foods, right? (Wait — pico’s got cilantro, so that’s more than just chopped food.)

    I hope you don’t mind the zeal with which I’m looking for holes in your argument. I assure you it’s only in the spirit of helping a brother out. I’m way into this condiment thing — in fact, I am considering buying a small “condiment fridge” to keep on the counter at home next to the rotating pies.

  9. One of those animated graphs – great idea!

    User control is, as they say, necessary but not sufficient. You’re just trying to get me to sound like a crazy person by saying that bananas are a condiment.

    It does bring up an interesting question of the relationship of “toppings” to condiments, though.

  10. re: toppings and condiments:

    Does it have to be savory to be a topping? Wither “jimmies,” aka “sprinkles”? What about crushed Heath Bars?

  11. I think it is qualitatively different – it’s why I used pico de gallo in the graph. Pico de gallo is stewing in its own acidic juices – often helped along by added lemon juice or even vinegar – so there’s something happening there, a qualitative change that doesn’t happen in other chopped together ingredients or relishes.

    I’m waving my little laser pointer slightly insanely at this point.

    Toppings do seem to be for sweet things – I purposefully ignored sweet dishes because they’re confusing and probably another class entirely (except for maple syrup which speaks for itself). What are caramel, hot fudge, chocolate sauce?

  12. “Sprinkles” is so middlebrow.

    Caramel, hot fudge, and chocolate sauce are all, as the last one clearly says, sauces. Not sure where that marshmallow stuff lands, though.

    But Chef Nealon, your exclusion of jimmies* doesn’t jibe with your inclusion of both sugar and cinnamon as condiments. When would I put either of those on a food — an already prepared food — if that food wasn’t a dessert?

    *Seriously? Why “jimmies,” Josh? What the hell does that mean? Is it some kind of Boston, “Jimmy Fund” thing? “Sprinkles” is so much more descriptive. Jimmies just makes me think of Slim Jims, which makes me think of Randy Savage, and I don’t want the Macho Man anywhere near my sundae.

  13. You can’t trust the labels – steak sauce, hot sauce, Worcestershire sauce, all condiments.

    Cinnamon is great to trick the tongue into experiencing sweet without adding sweetness (same way that mole works) – works great on green beans.

    They were mostly in there as a nod to the historical side of this series – it’s only relatively recently that we stopped using sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, clove, etc. in savory dishes.

    And, yeah – jimmies is nonsense, they’re sprinkles.

  14. How is it that horseradish ended up on the seasoning side, there, Nealon? I think of the diced horseradish in beet juice that my Russian in-laws slather all over their Kielbasi, or the creamy wasabi that I put on my maki rolls (though a bit more sparingly). This seems more in the pickle/relish territory, don’t you think?

  15. Like sugar and vinegar, croûton and tomato, chili and pico de gallo (though perhaps not for long) horseradish is a triple header – a pickle, a seasoning and a condiment.

  16. Ah yes, I wasn’t looking closely enough at the layering on the diagram. That’s all right then. And I see lutefisk is a food, a pickle and a condiment, which gives it the glory it deserves.

  17. Shaquille O’Neal puts mustard and ketchup in his hamburger mix before cooking — I saw it on “Shaq Vs.” recently. Thanks to this diagram and Tom’s series, I’m able to “read” Shaq’s actions — and I don’t like what they reveal about the guy.

  18. Does anyone else put potato chips on their tuna sandwich — under the bread, atop the tuna — or is that just my family?

  19. Thanks Charles!

    Potato chips on sandwiches are surprisingly rare outside of New Jersey. I prefer potato sticks on a sandwich (especially a steak sandwich).

  20. Yes, big fan of tuna and potato chip sandwiches, Ingrid! We my family used to have potato chips with bowls of ketchup for dipping, but I didn’t carry that custom into my adult life.

    Tom, does every culture have a pickle?

  21. I’d give a qualified yes – every remotely agricultural society with even a vague need to preserve from season to season should have a pickle. There are probably equatorial hunter gatherers with no need that remain pickleless.

  22. You are right to omit Branston Pickle from your wonderful thesis. It deserves its own Venn diagram that allows it to bridge Pickles, Sauces, Foods, Condiments, Precious Metals, Godly Nectars and many more categories.

  23. That’s terrific – he’s an EXTREME example of condiment conservatism – relish a separate class? That way madness lies for certain – not since the chutney riots of 1843 have I heard such nonsense.

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