May 24, 2012
The stuff is goopy, gelatinous, bright-red—at once a bland “culinary atrocity” and an essential part of summer. These days, the condiment is almost always made out of tomatoes. But ketchup wasn’t always that way. Indeed, the word appears to derive from pickled fish sauce. And for centuries, the English pickled everything from walnuts to celery in catsups. As late as 1901, the inveterate forager Charles McIlvaine recommended making ketchup out of mushrooms, adding a quart of red wine for every gallon of liquid. Either that or brandy, of the finest available kind.
Nearly a century earlier, in 1812, one of the first published American recipes for tomato ketchup, fruits that were then called “love apples,” appeared in Philadelphia physician James Mease’s book, the Archives of Useful Knowledge. (Mease credits the French for his recipe, although as Mark Kurlansky writes in Salt: A World History, “The French have never been known for their fondness of tomato ketchup, so it is thought, given the date, that the French he was referring to were planter refugees from the Haitian revolution.”) The doctor’s book includes a number of recipes for home distillation and, no surprise, his recommendation for “Love-Apple Catsup” calls for alcohol:
Slice the apples thin, and over every layer sprinkle a little salt; cover them, and let them lie twenty-four hours; then beat them well, and simmer them half an hour in a bell-metal kettle; then add mace & allspice. When cold, add two cloves of raw shallots cut small, and half a gill of brandy to each bottle, which must be corked tight, and kept in a cool place.
Ketchup’s changed in color and texture, going from a brown liquid to a viscous red one, but the condiment also went from one fermented ingredient (alcohol) to another (high-fructose corn syrup). This happened, historian Andrew F. Smith suggests in “From Garum to Ketchup,” as 19th century Americans developed a liking for sweet foods. Sugar added to ketchup hastened fermentation, causing ketchups to sour—and in some cases explode. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 banned any chemical preservatives that slowed fermentation, leaving us with a familiar and shelf-stable blend of salt, sugar, vinegar, and ripe tomatoes. Now, of course, we slather burgers and fries with this so-called “Esperanto of sauces” and tend to take any alcohol on the side.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.