Isherwood column: Ketchup
By Justin Isherwood
Ketchup, or if you prefer catsup, is quite famously a food group. The irony of history is ketchup/catsup shares the same name and sound as the equally classic Hokkien Chinese word kêtsiap.
Like ketchup, a food sauce but sourced from fermented fish. It was probably this term, ketchup, as caught on with British traders, and hence to the western food world as any tangy sauce. An English recipe for catchup appeared in 1732 by one Richard Bradley. It did not have tomatoes as an ingredient, instead variable ingredients including oysters, mushrooms, walnuts, anchovies. Jane Austen favored a certain mushroom catsup as may explain her particular turn of literature. All of these condiment ketchups, thick, thin or just malevolent, have been part of our greater human destiny, to play with our food.
Tomato catsup appeared in 1812 by James Mease, a scientist and horticulturist. He called tomatoes love apples, without any explanation. The recipe included tomato pulp, miscellaneous spice, also brandy. The Measeversion of catsup lacked what for modern ketchup is du rigor, vinegar and sugar.
The true glory of catsup is the preservation of the summer tomato. Even in pre-refrigerated days a jar of catsup could be maintained a year or longer at room temperature; at least, in theory. Never mind a nasty minded French cook/author referred to mid-19th century ketchups as “filthy, decomposed and putrid.” Only to wonder what the description of fermented fish?
The 19th and early 20th centuries were expansive times of consumer exploitation. What new foods people might try to eat to benefit, this was when a Coke really was coke, and radioactive radium would end up in toothpaste. Early commercial catsups came with coal tar to enhance the red color, never mind it might kill the liver of the consumer.
Harvey Washington Wiley was convinced that if quality ingredients were combined with hygienic preparation, harmful preservatives could be avoided. He partnered his nascent whole food approach with Henry J. Heinz and together they began producing ketchup in 1876, their quite prophetic promotion being “no chemicals in our ketchup.” “The Heinz” used ripe tomatoes and increased the vinegar to reduce spoilage. Soon after, the Heinz Company was selling five million bottles annually.
Currently Heinz sells 650 million annually. Worldwide consumption of ketchup is about three bottles per person annually, some 1.3 billion bottles. The first Heinz recipe was allspice, cloves, cayenne pepper, mace and cinnamon. A second recipe was pepper, ginger, mustard seed, celery salt, horseradish, brown sugar.
In descending order, I am a Packer fan, John Deere, Robert Frost, Emily Dickenson, trout, scrambled eggs, fried potatoes, about here to invoke ketchup/catsup. Ketchup on scrambled eggs, of that I am guilty. Fried potatoes, of course, boiled potatoes, sauerkraut, meatloaf, hot dogs, brats, catsup on plain piece of white toast with a leaf of processed cheese. Catsup on cheese curds, shrimp, potato chips. Have yet to try popcorn.
In our refrigerator there is a specific holy spot for catsup, two bottles and a spare always at hand. And yes, you can buy ketchup by the case, there is a case on a root cellar shelf along with the green beans, peas and canned corn. In case a blizzard runs long. A really proper French fry is equal part potato and ketchup. Same for a hamburger, brats, hot dogs. The trout, out of honor, eat plain.