August 16, 2011
I recently sat down at home for a repeat viewing of the movie musical Meet Me in St. Louis, a 1944 Judy Garland showcase that looks at American life at the turn of the 20th century by way of the comfortably middle-class Smith family. After the opening salvo of the title song, we are brought into the Smith kitchen where the household’s matriarch and the housekeeper are in the final stages of making ketchup, arguing among themselves and the rest of the family about what’s wrong with the latest batch. (Too sour. Too sweet. Too flat.) Once satisfied, they began spooning the concoction from the cooking pot into glass bottles. But the stuff was a bright red liquid that freely flowed from the spoon, lacking the thick, smack-the-jar-to-make-it-flow consistency I come to expect from this particular condiment. What exactly were they making and why was it so different from what we currently see on the grocery store shelves?
Ketchup became a popular condiment in Great Britain during the late 18th century, derived from sauces the ever-expanding empire was finding in Southeast Asia. The Asian katchop (and like the English word, it’s spelled in a number of ways) is a nonspecific term that referred to a variety of sauces, and the Brits took their own creative license to create a variety of ketchups, with walnut, fish or mushroom bases being the predominant varieties. The predilection for those sauces was brought over to America. The product has a long shelf life, thanks to the salt and vinegar and a cooking process that killed bacteria, it’s no wonder ketchup become a rollicking success. (There were also rumors that it had aphrodisiac qualities.)
Enter the tomato. Native to South America, tomatoes were probably first used for ketchups in the late 1700s. The spicy tang of this particular version of the condiment was ideal for adding flavor and a bit of color to otherwise bland dishes. And by the 1850s, increased tomato consumption meant increased interest in tomato products. The practice of making ketchup peaked in popularity in the mid-1800s—some cookbooks sported as many as 20 recipes—but after a few decades, it sputtered out as commercial ketchups rose in prevalence and prominence. Why? The sheer convenience factor. In a 1901 edition of Heinz’s in-house magazine, Pickles, an anonymous writer lamented over “the miseries of scouring… kettles to brassy brightness, the primitive manner of fruit-picking, the boiling of jellies and the parboiling of his face and hands as he stirred, stirred and constantly stirred the catsup to keep it from burning.” In addition to being cheap to manufacture—with factories using tomato scraps—the commercial product ended up setting the standard for Americans’ expectation of what ketchup should be: It was thicker, smoother and had had more sugar and vinegar than the homemade varieties.
Sadly, it’s a condiment that has been homogenized, with popular expectations undercutting ketchup’s potential. While we occasionally see commercial ketchup in different flavors—how about hickory and pizza?—and different colors, the same old tomato-based stuff remains the norm. So perhaps it’s time for a paradigm shift, and chef Jose Andres, the man behind the America Eats Tavern here in DC, is up to the challenge. Going back to recipes from ketchup’s heyday, his menu sports eight ketchups, including mushroom and tomato, but also ketchups that use fish or fruit as a base. “Why, as a society, have we let this diversity go away?” he said to the New York Times in a phone interview. “Why would we go from a rainbow to black and white?”
For the curious and adventurous, Andrew F. Smith’s book Pure Ketchup has a trove of historical recipes for a variety of ketchups, with bases that range from grapes to lobster. But with tomato season in full swing, the tomato variety might fit the bill for this season. Would you try your hand at making ketchup in your kitchen?
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