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Anti-Ketchup Messages Appear on Chicago's Digital Road Signs

The anti-condiment statement appeared on an official Illinois Department of Transportation electronic traffic board.

by Danielle Wayda
Jul 18 2018, 2:00pm

Left photo by flickr user Marco Verch; right photo by Irene Ducharme. 

City-specific foods are such a polarizing force for townies. Do you get your Philly cheese steak “wit” fried onions or “witout” ‘em? Do you fold your New York dollar slice in half while you eat it standing up, or hold it flat? And if you’re a Chicagoan, do you fuck with ketchup on your toppings-laden hot dogs, or no?

It seems the Illinois Department of Transportation has weighed in on the debate, using their electronic highway road signs to convey a dually important message.

“NO TEXTING. NO SPEEDING. NO KETCHUP,” a sign spanning Interstate 90/94 in Chicago reads. The above image, posted to Twitter this past Saturday by editor of The Takeout and Windy City resident Kevin Pang, is 100-percent serious and not the doings of a rogue IDOT employee with a good sense of humor. Other Chicagoans with strong opinions about ketchup replied to the tweet with their vehement agreement and even a threat to Pang to “Keep it off your hotdog or you will be deported from Chicago immediately.”

A few weeks ago, a Chicago Tribune reporter also happened to notice the uptick in humorous highway signs, and got in touch with IDOT. In order to compete with the plethora of distractions for motorists—from other billboards, to food, friends, and mobile devices—the department was looking for snazzy ways to cut through the din and communicate important safety and traffic messages.

“If we can catch someone’s attention for just a second and let them know there are life-and-death consequences when they’re on the road, that’s what we want to do,” Jamie Simone, a bureau chief of IDOT, told the Tribune. During Mother’s Day weekend, signs read “Mom says late’s OK. Dead is not. Obey speed limits.” When the first of 2018’s World Cup games were starting, signs cheered “Buckling up is always a good GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAL.”

While Pang feels beleaguered in the ongoing in-fighting between the ketchup likers and the ketchup shunners in his city, the rest of Chicago seems content to let the debate rage on. Where do these strong opinions about hotdog condiments originate? The answer isn’t fully clear, although Pang himself tried to take a crack at calling a cease-fire while at the Tribune back in 2011.

Reddit user Brickstreet, in a thread raising this eternal question, has a pretty solid rationalization for the anti-ketchup stance, arguing that sliced tomatoes are already one of the “proper” toppings for a Chicago-style dog, so ketchup would be redundant, and—frankly—an inferior addition. “If the sweet, refreshing sliced tomato is generously served on the hot dog, why would someone destroy such a masterpiece with high-fructose corn syrup with red coloring?” they ask. (Heinz, maker of one of the country’s most beloved ketchup varieties, tried to rebrand the condiment last summer as “Chicago dog sauce” to endear itself to picky Chicagoans, and the internet backfire was swift and merciless.)

All ketchup jokes aside, IDOT wants Chicago drivers to take their safety messages to heart, as the state of Illinois saw some of the highest driving-related fatalities in a decade, according to Guy Trigdell, IDOT’s director of communications. So it goes without saying that, unless you’re in the passenger seat, IDOT would really prefer that you don’t snap pictures of their clever signage while on the road. And choose the condiments for your ‘dogs at your own peril.