The 35-Cent Gallon of Ketchup

Vintage bottle found on eBay. A gallon of ketchup sells for $35.00 in 2020.

In early September, 1931, after our first bale of cotton was sold, Papa came home from town with a bulging sack of groceries for our celebration supper. Inside the sack were several T-bone steaks, two or three loaves of store-bought bread, a dozen or so of both apples and oranges, and a 35-cent gallon of ketchup!

Our six-course celebration supper consisted of T-bone steaks, french-fried potatoes, cream gravy (which we called “thickenin’ gravy”), store-bought bread, fruit for dessert, and a 35-cent gallon bucket of ketchup! Papa placed the ketchup directly in front of his plate, opened it with an old hunting and skinning knife, and ladled generous portions onto the six plates that were repeatedly passed back to him, the voices and eyes of the owners begging for a little more ketchup.

When the bucket was about half empty, and my siblings and I were about half full, we unanimously raised a plaintive plea for permission to eat the remaining half-gallon. Chester, ever the practical arranger, made the suggestion which brought the victory: He promised Papa that he would walk into town the next morning and buy another gallon of ketchup.

Papa reluctantly relented, pushed the bucket out into the middle of the table, and told us to go after it. Today, 64 years after the fact, I dogmatically declare that it took exactly one minute and 19 seconds for us to consume that last half-gallon of ketchup. Then, one by one, we took turns in wiping out the bucket with piece after piece of our store-bought bread.

The next morning, we took a collection among the five brothers to underwrite the 35-cent purchase price of the second gallon. After passing the hat several times, and after much eloquent pleading and psychological pressure, we were still nine cents short. Papa, probably with a buffalo nickel and four Indian-head pennies, rounded the collection off to the required 35 cents.

With the 35 cents deeply tucked away inside our overalls’ pockets, Chester and I set out on the six-mile round trip to buy and bring home the ketchup, with that clumsy-and-handleless and ever-growing-heavier bucket of ketchup in our hands, under our arms, on our shoulders, across our hunched-over backs, atop our wobbling heads, and frequently relaying our one-gallon baton from one to the other, we finally staggered across the finishing line of our debilitating marathon. With what we were sure were our final vestiges of strength, we entered our home, crawled into the kitchen, set the bucket on the table, and stretched out on the floor in an effort to recapture a portion of the strength we had expended in our ketchup-toting episode.

I hereby humbly affirm that I am the only person in today’s world who holds an EDK (an earned doctoral degree in ketchup). And, because of my EDK, I consider myself qualified to make a suggestion: If you would like to know how heavy a gallon bucket of ketchup can become before you reach the end of a three-mile journey, or if you desire to earn a coveted and extremely rare EDK degree, or if you would like to create a memory that will span the vicissitudes of time and accompany you over into eternity, find and buy a 35-cent gallon of ketchup and ask your brother to help you tote it down a hot-and-dusty country road toward a destination that lies awaaaaaaaay off younder across 33 oceans, 43 continents, 53 mountains, and 63 Grand Canyons!

Hal Upchurch, 1995

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