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Wednesday, August 11, 2010
The Journals is profiling one interesting person each week for 13 issues. This week: Mike Gassmann, 48, president of the Official World's Largest Catsup Bottle Fan Club in Collinsville.
mike gassmannHow did you get this gig?
I started volunteering for the Catsup Bottle group after the water tower was saved and repainted in 1995. I'm a graphic artist and I also do marketing and public relations. Before I knew it, Judy DeMoisy, the Catsup Bottle lady, gave me the title of Big Tomato and there was no turning back.

Why do you think Collinsville has such a love for condiments like horseradish, ketchup?
Well, you go with what you've got. I think it's pretty cool that the most common condiment and the most unique condiment have both put Collinsville on the map. I'm still pushing for that big cocktail sauce party.

Is it ketchup or catsup?
It's both. When referring to the Catsup Bottle Water Tower, it's always "catsup." When referring to the saucy red condiment, it's "ketchup." Even today, Brooks Foods has changed the spelling to "ketchup." Of course, I think that's all a part of a government conspiracy in 1981 when President Reagan's administration declared ketchup a vegetable.

Why does every kid love ketchup?
Half the ketchup sold in the U.S. is consumed by kids. I think there's some sort of scientific reasoning: It stimulates all of the taste buds of a child (especially the sweet ones), and it covers up the taste of things they don't like to eat. Personally, I think kids like it because it's red and it fun to play with your food with ketchup being involved.

Chicagoans shun ketchup on their hot dogs. What are your thoughts on this?
Um, consider the source. Most Chicagoans are Cubs fans, too. Actually, this goes back to that kid thing. It's always the kids who prefer ketchup on their dogs. Most grown adults, not just Chicagoans, won't admit to putting ketchup on their dogs. But especially Chicagoans.

Any plans to build an elevator to the top of the ketchup bottle like the Gateway Arch? I hear you can see for miles on a clear day …
That would be awesome. We would love to do that. It's a little cost prohibitive at this point, plus the insurance alone would be a killer. But who knows? Maybe some day.

Do tourists ever ask if there's actual ketchup in the tower?
All the time! That has got to be the No. 1 most frequently asked question. My stock answer is that I can neither confirm nor deny that report.

Do ever compare notes with fans of the largest chili can (Beloit, Wis.) or world's largest box of raisins (Kingsburg, Calif.)?
Yes, actually, we do. We're in touch with a lot of other "world's largest" attractions around the country. We like to see what they do for events and promotions and such. We call them Catsup Bottle Cousins and we're working on adding a feature highlighting them on our website.

If Collinsville had to have another unusual water tower, what would it be?
I always wanted to put a spoon coming out of the former water tower behind City Hall and turn it into a big mustard jar. Of course, a gigantic horseradish root would be fun, or maybe we should paint the one we already have like a giant basketball to honor the Kahoks' mighty sports legacy.

Do people ever challenge you for the "Big Tomato" title?
Only my friends and family. It's funny, they always give me the look - you know, the stink-eye look - and sarcastically say something like, "'Big Tomato? Yeah, right."

How many tomato puns do you have? Is there a book somewhere?
Not as many as I'd like. If there is a book out there, I'd love to have it. The kids who drive the Wienermobiles around the country go to school to learn to talk in food puns. I'd relish the opportunity to take those classes, but I'm afraid I wouldn't cut the mustard.

What are your feelings about French people putting mayonnaise on their fries? Sacrilege?
I'm very tolerant and accepting of others, even the French. After all, sometimes we refer to the Catsup Bottle as Collinsville's Eiffel Tower. And mayo on fries is really good. I've even been known to accent my fries with tartar sauce on occasion.

What's next for the bottle?
Well, there is always something going on. There's something happening right now that I can't talk about yet. I hope it pans out, because it will be huge if it does. Really, really huge. Otherwise, there will be two documentaries released in 2011 that will feature the Catsup Bottle. One is from a young filmmaker out of California named Grimace Boyer. His film will be about his travels along Route 66. The other is international. A visual artist and filmmaker from Amsterdam named Sietske Tjallingii is putting together a really fun, avant-garde, artsy movie titled "My American Dream." It should be crazy. She was here filming a few weeks ago dressed as a giant French fry. We can't wait for that one.

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