In the way that Colette might have looked back on her love affairs with a calmer eye and an appreciation for the sudden and temporary passions that drove her to reckless choices, so do I look back on the trail of condiments with which I have been briefly and tumultuously obsessed.
The first was likely Hellman's mayonnaise (aka Best Foods), which my grandmother spread on toasted pumpernickel and English muffins. Streaked with soy sauce, it allowed me to down even the most dreaded childhood vegetables, like steamed broccoli and cauliflower. Soon it became my go-to for anything green, then everything but sweets. Once I grew out of it (or did we just run out of mayo?), I moved on to a series of mustards, cluttering our refrigerator with little bottles. Then there was vinegar, white on fried noodles and malt on fries. Then steak sauce. Sweet chili sauce. We're still on and off.
When my college roommate casually slid the first bottle of Tapatío I'd ever seen across the table to me, I was caught off guard, expecting something like Tabasco, on which I'd already burned out. (In my defense, I was from a Northeastern dead zone for Mexican food and didn't see a soft taco until I showed up at school in Santa Barbara.) I didn't drown my plate in it but all at once it became indispensable. I lost perspective. No savory food was safe from a few shakes of the bottle of salsa picante — my pizza slices (and crusts), instant ramen, eggs, spaghetti and whatever I was having over rice were all shared with the gentleman in the sombrero. Did I splash it over kimchi? Maybe I did. It's all a red ochre blur.
Once what I call a bout of "condimentia" subsides, I emerge from the frenzy a little dazed but not completely tired of the flavor. Age has mellowed the intensity of these whirlwind romances but one still strikes me now and again, like last year, when I was working my way through bottles of gochujang. Judge me if you want but who doesn't have a torrid past with Sriracha or ranch? I see you with that Nutella jar. Let there be no shame in occasionally getting carried away. Here are four local offerings that have lately held me in thrall.
J Catering Dressing
This fancy glass bottle of ranch showed up in our breakroom and ruined me for any other with its fresh chives and ridiculous richness. There's no hint of the sugar I now find unbearable in the usual pop-top variety. Friends, it's $10.89 at the North Coast Co-op and I do not feel ripped off in the least. Nervous that someone will see me and assume I'm shopping drunk, yes. But not ripped off. I have given it as a small gift, dipped potato chips in it and passed it off as homemade in coleslaw only to later crumble like bleu cheese and confess. The discovery of its bleu cheese sibling — tart, creamy and dotted with bits of cheese, rivaling any fancy steakhouse's — was an aftershock ($11.99).
Lindah's Hot-N-Sweet Mustard
Evidently everyone has been eating this without me. It's truth in advertising personified: a hot mustard with a sweet tang that's not as cloying as all that honey mustard we went nuts with in the late 1980s ($4). (What were we doing with our curled bangs, trickle-down economics and turkey sandwiches slathered with candy mustard?) It's closer to the light sinus burn of standard Chinese mustard with the zing of apple cider vinegar, tempered by sugar. And now I cannot imagine eating a pretzel without dunking it in this mustard first.
Taste of Bim Hot Pepper Dipping Sauce
News editor Thad Greenson once entered my office to find me red faced and watery eyed, breathing in deep sighs at my desk. He closed the door and whispered, "Is everything all right?" I was forced to tell my colleague that I was not having an emotional meltdown and in fact had spooned too much of this tomato-sweet Caribbean sauce onto my lunch. Not my proudest office moment. The first few seconds are all about the garlic, tomato and red pepper, but the heat is coming. And it lingers. The flavor lures me out of my chile strike zone until chasing it leaves my mascara down around my chin. The jars are not in stores these days but you can pop into the restaurant and have one filled straight from the pot ($8).
Hum Yum Sea Salt Caramel Sauce
This simple and lovely sauce made from cream, butter, sugar, vanilla and sea salt is the spoon-able version of Hum Yum's little wrapped boutique organic candies ($6). It adds wholesome luxury to ice cream, the last corner brownie in the pan, cinnamon raisin bread (trust me) or a large spoon. It's everything you love about good caramel, like the kind that comes in the center of fancy chocolates, and not overly salty — in fact, a final garnish of a few flakes of salt would not be amiss when serving. Ditch the lid and you can microwave the jar to pour it out warm. There's even a runnier but still tasty vegan version ($6).
Share your What's Good tips with Jennifer Fumiko Cahill, arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.