No matter what else you love or hate about the kitchen, even the most barren of refrigerators has a lingering bottle of ketchup. It is the hero of American condiments. It clatters with the whoosh of an opened door. As a wise man with an ice-cream cone tattooed on his face once said, “If a man does not have the sauce, then he is lost. But the same man can be lost in the sauce.” We never really understood what that meant until the bizarre history of ketchup was discovered. Just take this single fact, for starters: The first ketchup had nothing to do with tomatoes.
How did a simple sauce come to be so loved by America?
Ketchup wasn’t always made of tomatoes. The earliest form ketchup was derived from fermented fish sauce. Professor Dan Jurafsky found that tomato ketchup is on just one branch of the family tree and that the condiment actually started out as fermented fish paste. According to the history of ketchup, the discovery of fermented fish paste came from a source of an amazing smell which was actually a pile of discarded fish entrails that had been covered with dirt and left to decay. From there came the recipe for one of the first ketchup, which included the stomach, bladder, and intestines of fish, salted heavily and left in a jar to ferment. In about 50 days (or 100 days in the winter or 20 in the hot summer sun), you’d have your condiment.
The name “ketchup” came along a bit later, the words “ge-tchup,” “kue-chiap,” and “ke-tchup” were recorded in the dictionaries of Western missionaries. It is believed that traders brought fish sauce from Vietnam to southeastern China. So, when the British invaders likely encountered ketchup in Southeast Asia, they started trying to make some for themselves. They had no idea what was in it. Mushroom and walnut varieties along with red pepper-, grape-, and oyster-based ketchup got quite a bit of play on the English recipe book circuit. Ketchup was a hit. Its high concentration of salt and vinegar could sit on the shelf for a long time which was a bonus before the age of refrigerators. These early ketchup were mostly thin and dark and were often added to soups, sauces, meat, and fish. At this point, ketchup lacked one important ingredient.
The first known recipe to actually include the tomatoes was published in 1812 by horticulturist James Mease. Not only did he call tomatoes “love apples,” but his recipe featured a multitude of spices, a splash of brandy, and no vinegar or sugar.
The success of ketchup was due in part, still, preservation of tomato ketchup proved challenging. Since the growing season of tomato was short, makers of ketchup had to solve the problem of preserving tomato pulp year round. Some producers handled and stored the product so poorly that the resulting sauce contained contaminants like bacteria, spores, yeast, and mold—leading French cookbook author Pierre Blot to call commercial ketchup “filthy, decomposed and putrid” in 1866. Many manufacturers circumvented this unfortunate truth by loading their sauce with preservatives like coal tar and sodium benzoate. By the end of the 19th Century, benzoates were seen as particularly harmful to health.
In 1905, the history of ketchup changed for good, forever. Henry J. Heinz was convinced that American consumers want preservative-free ketchup. They did not want chemicals in their ketchup. He developed a recipe that used ripe, red tomatoes, which have more of the natural preservative called pectin than the scraps other manufacturers used and dramatically increasing the vinegar content to never-bef0re-seen levels. Heinz began producing preservative-free ketchup and soon dominated the market. In 1905, the company had sold five million bottles of ketchup. Once a door-to-door horseradish salesman, he transformed the foodscape overnight and launched a culinary empire in the history of ketchup.
Ketchup is probably such a staple that you know exactly how much is left and right when to pick up another bottle. Companies like Heinz are such a part of American culture that you probably never even thought about trying to make your own ketchup. But you might be surprised by how easy it is.
This recipe from Delicious magazine will make you two bottles of the tasty red stuff, and it’ll be ready in just a couple of hours. Made from allspice, chilies, garlic, red wine vinegar, onions, peppercorns, and a dash of brown sugar, it’s a great way to try something new.
Ketchup is a non-Newtonian fluid that is it breaks the rules of how liquids and solids should act. Ketchup is both a liquid and a solid, and it changes its density based on how much pressure is applied to it. You know how ketchup goes from being stuck in the bottle to pouring out all over the place? That switch is when it crosses the threshold. Shake a bottle up past that threshold and it becomes 1,000 times thinner than it was on the other side. Are you one of those people who slowly and carefully coax your ketchup out of the bottle? Good luck! Science says that’s not very effective.