Just before the summer of 1993, my brother Steve called me and asked if I wanted a job for the summer. It was at the Hunt-Wesson plant in Toledo where he worked as an engineer and I would help with tracking labor and doing product tests around the plant. Back then, during the summer, the plant went through a period called “The Fresh Pack” where fresh tomatoes were brought in from the surrounding farms for three months straight so they could make ketchup. The plant stayed open 24/7 and only closed down during Labor Day for cleaning. I said, “Hell, yes,” packed my toothbrush, acid washed jean shorts, two-year-old condom, and drove to Toledo, Ohio to go live with my brother for the summer.
The first thing I learned upon showing up at his house was that he was living in sin with a pudding girl.
The second thing I learned walking in the door was my brother’s relationship with Kelly, the previously aforementioned pudding girl, was to remain quiet and that I was not to spill the tapioca about the secret relationship between the big tomato and the pudding girl.
The Hunt-Wesson plant in Toledo made ketchup and it made pudding. The people on the ketchup side did not interact with the people on the pudding side and vice-versa. Well, they spoke with one another, but there was not to be any cross ketchup/pudding interactions if you get my meaning. (I’m currently raising my eyebrows up and down in a suggestive manner.)
I kept it a secret. But it was difficult. Kelly is very pretty. In a pudding plant, there wasn’t much to look at, but Kelly’s beauty reflected off the giant stainless-steel tanks, created flickering illusions between the fast-moving foil sealed containers flying down the conveyor belt, and made the railroad tankers of modified corn starch derail and dump their contents all over the tracks in a cute, but embarrassing fashion. Rumors of a ketchup guy like Steve dating a pudding girl like Kelly would be quickly dismissed and swept away like a spilled tanker of modified corn starch. I mean, come on… pudding and ketchup don’t go together.
But they did go together. And that is a story for another day. For now, let’s go to Doug and Steve negotiating rent at the dinner table.
I was sitting at the dinner table with Steve in preparations to negotiate rent. He brought out a piece of paper, two pens, and suggested that we figure out what I was going to pay for room and board at his house per month for the summer. This “rent” part of the deal was not mentioned when he said, “Come to Toledo for a job.” He tore the paper in half and invited me to write down what I thought was a fair dollar amount for a room and board. I wrote down a number that was not generous, but reasonable. He wrote down his number. We placed our numbers face down on the table and pushed them at each other. I looked at his number. He looked at mine. He said, “Nice try. We’ll go with mine.” I agreed because Steve was not someone you could disagree with unless you were willing to spend a few hours failing at it.
At the ketchup plant, my job was pretty simple: catch people trying to sneak in late, test the tomato pulp moisture, and check to see if the temporary summer employees were throwing out the wrong kinds of tomatoes OR trying to save ripe tomatoes from ketchup death via a Disneyesque escape. The people coming in late is pretty easy to visualize. Checking the moisture was a multi-step process, but I got to learn some Spanish. The tomato escape requires a bit of explanation and ties in to part of the end of this story, so lean in and listen closely to the tale of the ripe tomato…
The farmer surveys his tomato field. He is pleased. The tomatoes are growing. Ripening. Alive! Their sickly green begins to transform into a rosy pink that will someday become a brilliant, glowing red, like a hot coal in a fire. But the farmer knows that he just can’t magically transport ripe tomatoes to the ketchup factory. He’s got to time it perfectly: pick the tomatoes as they ripen. Send them to the plant and time it so they are bright red as they enter the factory gates; the bright red tomatoes ready to sacrifice themselves to be made into ketchup so that a 7-year-old kid will eat his pork chop once it is covered in that thick salty, sweet, acidic, red goodness. The farmer knows that he will be paid based on how many tomatoes he brings, but also on how many of them are peaking on ripeness. Green tomatoes are acidic and evil. Overripe tomatoes have an abundance of sugar, which might sound like a blessing, but no one wants an overripe tomato, just like no one wants an overripe banana. The farmer does his best to time it perfectly: start the harvest so that he can gather the tomatoes as they are ripening, but before they get too ripe. And because you want to go to the ketchup plant with the tomatoes you have and not the tomatoes you might want or wish to have at a later time, he will pick the tomatoes a little too soon and a little too late and ship them to the plant with the highest chance of bring him home the most money. He sends off a truck filled with tomatoes, their ripeness changing like the odometer on the truck, speeding off to Perrysburg, Ohio.
The truck arrives at the ketchup factory and immediately the plant representative is suspicious of the truckload of tomatoes, because that is his job. He takes a sample of the tomatoes from the truck and frowns, his brow furrowing, reminding the tomatoes of their earthen home of dirt rows. He and the driver get into a disagreement about if there are 80% ripe tomatoes or only 8 out of 10 ripe tomatoes. In the end, they agree upon a price that neither agrees with and the driver dumps the load of tomatoes from the truck into a hopper. The tomatoes fall because gravity calls them, but they also know they have a higher purpose. Slightly green, perfect red, and too red tip earthward and follow the siren call of the center of the earth. Into darkness. Conveyors take them forward through the darkness.
Inside the plant, the temporary workers, who think they have a chance of getting into the union, sift through the never-ending parade of multicolored tomatoes. Their job is to get rid of the green and really red with black spots tomatoes. Green tomatoes might be great for lesbian movies, but in a ketchup plant they are bitter with acids. The over-ripe tomatoes might seem perfect, but they are bursting with sugar. Both ends of the spectrum are bad. They grab the green, squish the really red, and drop them into chutes which lead to a water filled trough that is a quick rafting trip to a dumpster which will take those inedible fruits to the fertilizer or dog food plant. In the Toy Story version of this tale, a green tomato and really red tomato would make their getaway, instead of being turned into dog food, holding stems as they float down the concrete trough.
The end product of this sorting is supposed to be a sea of equally ripened tomatoes with an assumed pH level that can be divided by mass and fill the recipe that my brother has spinning in his head. But the workers miss some of the green and some of the really red. Odds would suggest they would cancel themselves out, but reality doesn’t believe in odds and the pH tends to lean one way or the twain. This can throw off any carefully prepared recipe and make the pH wander.
In the ketchup kitchen, (really, it’s a cooking deck with several giant stainless-steel tanks where huge volumes of tomatoes, high fructose corn syrup, vinegar, spices and “natural flavors” are brought together, mixed, heated and persuaded to turn into ketchup,) Steve is the conductor to an orchestra of chemistry. Really, he’s a chef accountant, as Steve’s job is to make ketchup, but he wants to do it using the smallest amount of resources possible, saving the company money. OK, really, this was all about Steve and how far he could walk the thin line between making ketchup and getting fired.
There is a recipe to making ketchup. You put in the right amount of everything in a certain order, cooking it at a certain temperature, and then ketchup comes out the other end. But it can’t be ketchup until it passes Quality Control. Quality Control says that ketchup must be in a within a certain pH range. Quality Control knows the pH of the ketchup because Steve will take samples during the cooking process, put them in the pneumatic delivery system, and the QC Ladies on the low-pressure end of the system will test the samples to see what that pH level is. And when Steve is sending down the samples, they are wary and their language starts to trend to the inappropriate. And they have good reason to be inappropriate.
Ketchup is acidic. Hunt-Wesson pays the Quality Control people to make sure that rogue engineers, like Steve, wouldn’t make ketchup that didn’t have that pH level that lived between (I’m guessing here) 3.48 and 3.98. They would get his samples, grit their teeth, and measure the pH…
(pause to build excitement)
…and most of the time, the pH would be right in the middle and all was good.
But sometimes, it was right on the edge or over. Those part time tomato sorters wouldn’t be doing their job and the pH average would teeter-totter from one side to the other. The QC team would get on the phone and punch in the maestro’s number in the kitchen, “You are running high, Powhida!”
“I’ve got it.”
Steve would then consider his options. To lower or raise the pH, Steve could add sugar or vinegar or any number of bulk ingredients. But those bulk ingredients cost money. And money is money. So Steve would run that fine line and try not to add any additional commodities, knowing that he could cook down the acidity or add more tomatoes to raise it. But you couldn’t cook the ketchup forever and you can only add so many addition tomatoes of unknown pH. If the pH was out of tolerance, they might have to dump the whole batch. That is that fine line.
At the tail end of the cooking process, Steve would send down the last sample to be tested. He would then race behind it to the QC lab. I was in the lab several times a day, doing moisture tests, so I could hear the QC woman complain about Steve running the pH edge. Steve would come exploding through the QC doors and quickly scan the area for his sample being tested.
Steve, “What is it?”
QC woman, “…. 3.92!” Just within tolerance.
Steve would then take both his hands, raise them up above his head, and pull down dual, imaginary slot machine handles and yell, “Cha-ching!”
He would then release a roar that was part laugh, half yell and a bit of something I would later remember is called a “barbaric yawp.”
And then back to make the next batch.
On one occasion, I saw a QC lady making the “Cha-ching” gesture when she was pissed off at Steve for running the pH too high. “… that Steve coming down here with his cha-ching, cha-ching.”
Minutes later he raced in.
Steve, “What is it?”
QC woman, “…. 4.08!”
Steve, “What!” He ran to the phone and called up to the cooking deck and told them to add X amount of Y to bring the pH into check to the lamentations of the money people.
And then back to make the next batch.
I lived with Steve and Kelly for the rest of the summer. Steve and I worked every day, he a 12 hour shift and me an 8. We compared paychecks one day and my gross pay was what he was paying in taxes. (Note to self: in next life, become an engineer.) I almost cooked their cat in the broiler. I drank a lot with my friend Jeff and his law student buddies. Skinny and I got together once at the Blind Pig. I learned a Spanish phrase that I will never forget from one of the pulping machines, “No meta las manos en la máquina por la operación.” I learned that the real union workers did not like to have their time cards pulled. And lastly I learned that one of the hardest tasks in the world was to throw out bad tomatoes.
I’d like to think that there was some kind of magical end to that summer. That my tomato had turned from green to red. My pH on the edge, brought back into check with subtle acts of chemistry. But in the end, I think I packed up my acid washed, cutoff jeans and left town, still green.
The big tomato and the pudding girl got married one year later. Cha-Ching.