What if a food that works fine in its original goopy form were deconstructed into its elemental components, dehydrated, and rebranded as a spice? That’s the question that Trader Joe’s can’t stop asking, and the latest incomprehensible answer is Ketchup-Flavored Sprinkle Seasoning Blend.
My own question is, why? Especially given that ketchup already exists. Is it supposed to be astronaut food, like Tang?
No. You can’t sprinkle powder willy-nilly in zero G. (Tang was contained in a vacuum-sealed pouch, after all.) That’s why you never see old footage of astronauts doing lines of coke off the lunar module.
Perhaps the target consumers aren’t spacemen but terrestrial folks who can’t be trusted to squirt ketchup safely. Like maybe a hapless employee at TJ’s product labs was squeezing a half-empty Heinz bottle over her hot dog at the company cookout, causing it to emit a slurpy farting noise in front of her crush. And lo, she went into her lab the next day and created Trader Joe’s Ketchup-Flavored Sprinkle Seasoning Blend (TJKFSSB) in the crucible of her mortification.
With the pioneering spirit of a space explorer and a firsthand appreciation of how gastric noises—simulated or real—can literally ruin your life (shout out to my weak Ashkenazi digestive tract), I boldly go where no self-respecting supermarket shopper has gone before and fork over $2.99 to experience this product’s unearthly appeal.
“Be adventurous,” the copy on the side of the tiny jar urges me. As if the text can see the wary look on my face, it adds, “You won’t regret the sprinkle.”
Why refer to it as “the sprinkle” when the seasoning in the jar is decidedly a powder? Is the word sprinkle meant to suggest the act of sprinkling? And if so, why bother, since sprinkling is obviously what you do with a spice? Maybe subjects in early testing phases thought it was TJ’s take on blow and tried to snort it.
Inspired by those focus groups, I open the bottle and sniff. My eyes water as the acidic sting of vinegar hurtles into my nostrils like the Apollo 11 blazing through the earth’s atmosphere. Am I made of the “right stuff” to explore this gustatory final frontier? I’ll have a better sense as soon as my vision unblurs.
I decide my first taste launch of the seasoning blend will be unaccompanied by other food, so as to assess the new variable in isolation. No fries. No hotdog. No burger. As Trader Joe himself might say: you gotta take out the middleman.
I shake some onto a plate. (Thanks to the five enormous holes in the plastic cover of TJKFSSB, the effect is akin to a miniature meteor shower; one more reason calling this product “sprinkle” is misleading.) I dip my finger into the mountain of muted vermillion space dust, and—3… 2… 1—tentatively take a lick.
The good news: TJKFSSB isn’t half bad. The bad news: it does not taste like ketchup.
It’s more like a Swedish fish swimming in a bowl of tomato soup. Or if the innovators at Tang launched a new line of Bloody Mary mix.
TJKFSSB seems distantly related to ketchup in the same way that I, a Rhode Island Hebrew day school dropout who couldn’t break 700 on the math section of the SATs, likely have a common ancestor with Judith Resnik, the Ohio-born quant prodigy who was the first Jewish woman to go to space.
The seasoning reminds me of the sauce in a can of SpaghettiOs: sweet and tomatoey. I fact-check my hypothesis against the ingredient list; sure enough, tomato powder and sugar are listed first. Look at me, using the scientific method. Maybe Judith and I aren’t that far from each other in the game of Jewish Geography after all. We probably have friends in common from sleepaway camp.
I try adding TJKFSSB to a panoply of dishes (a Beyond burger, plain pasta, a piece of multigrain toast), and I’m sorry to say that I do indeed regret it. Since the product design makes it impossible to use a small amount, all the foods get covered up to their eyeballs in red and white-flecked granules. TJKFSSB’s saccharine flavor eclipses that of the other items, and inhaling such a large volume of powder sends me into multiple coughing fits.
Yet the more I revert to my original method and lick it directly off the plate, the better it tastes. By the eighth bump, I have to resist the urge to rub it on my gums. I begin to wonder whether the white crystals in the powder are perhaps not sugar, but something far stronger.
With my mission complete, I conclude that this product is not a substitute for ketchup. But if you are not currently orbiting the earth and find yourself craving an affordable, tomato-based, non-intoxicating cocaine alternative, you won’t regret the sprinkle.