Peggy Keener: The sassyest of sauces

Published 5:02 pm Friday, August 4, 2023

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I know. I know. I KNOW! It seems that everything is made in China. We just can’t get away from it. Sorry to tell you, but here’s one more thing that you thought was as American as George Washington. Ketchup … the hero of our condiments. Yup, it came from China. Crikey!

Almost all (actually 97%) of all American homes have a bottle of ketchup in their kitchen. It’s like shampoo or pencils … we just have to have it.

But, for crying out loud, “ketchup” isn’t even our word! It’s actually ke-tsiap, a very old—of course—Chinese word. It’s what they called a dressing they made from fermented fish. (Didn’t see that coming, did you?) It is believed that way, way back traders brought the fish sauce from Vietnam to southeastern Asia.

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Probably in the late 17th or 18th centuries the British then got involved with the yeasty dark flavoring. Proof of this is evidenced in a recipe published in 1732 by an English writer, Richard Bradley. Let it be known that it is a far cry from the ketchup we know today … and for this you may feel forever grateful. The old concoction was made with ingredients like mushrooms, walnuts, oysters and anchovies, all with the hope of creating the Asian savory taste. It is said that this ketchup was favored by Jane Austen. (My sincerest of apologies to her fans, but this could explain why Miss Austen led such a boring Jane Austen life. She should have added a jalapeno or two to spice things up.)

One ketchup recipe called for one hundred oysters, three pints of white wine, and lemon peels spiked with mace and cloves!

But, in all of these concoctions, note the absence of tomatoes. It took 80 more years to add them to the mix. It was James Mease (who called tomatoes “love apples”) who combined tomato pulp, spices and brandy. There wasn’t a hint of vinegar and sugar.

What was really the saving grace, as far as ketchup was concerned, was that it could be kept for up to a year without turning into something unmentionable. It must be said that there were some producers who didn’t know beans about making the sauce, though. Theirs resulted in contaminants such as bacteria, spores, yeast and mold. (This reminds me of years ago when my first born son begged me to make his school lunches because as he said, “I do not like the cafeteria, the food tastes like bacteria!)

In 1866, a French cookbook author described the condiment as “filthy, decomposed and putrid!”

Aha! And now we know the mystery behind Miss Austen’s demise.

About that time, investigations into commercial ketchup found that it contained some pretty unsafe levels of preservatives—namely coal tar … which was added to make the red color … and sodium benzoate to reduce spoilage. Yum! By the end of the century, thank goodness, these two ingredients were suspiciously harmful to health.

About this time a man from Pittsburgh entered the picture. A brainiac sort of guy, he determined that Americans really didn’t want chemicals in their ketchup. His name was Henry J. Heinz. His answer was to use ripe red tomatoes which contained the natural preservative pectin. He also dramatically increased the amount of vinegar to reduce the risk of fermenting. By 1905, his company had sold five million bottles of ketchup.

By then American housewives were finding that their homemade ketchup just didn’t taste “right”. The bottled stuff was better. Sales increased. Would you believe that now we folks purchase ten billion ounces of ketchup annually which roughly translates into three bottles per person per year! More than 650 million bottles of Heinz ketchup are sold every year.

For those daring few who would like to try making ketchup on your own, here’s a recipe:

• 2T olive oil

• 1 cup diced onion

• 5 minced garlic cloves

• 6 lbs. ripe tomatoes

• 1 T paprika

• 1 t ground cinnamon

• ¼ t ground cloves

• 1 T celery salt

• ½ t ground cumin

• ½ t dry mustard

•1½ T chili powder (or more for extra zing)

• ½ t ground pepper

• ¼ cup apple cider vinegar

• ¼ cup distilled white vinegar

• 1 T packed light brown sugar

• 1 T honey

Or, alternatively, you could just bop over to HyVee and buy some. The good news is that no where in this recipe does it call for fermented fish or walnuts or oysters. However … and here it comes …in defense of these items I would not be true to myself if I did not admit to an absolute love of Vietnamese nuoc mam. Why not? After nearly 30 years of my living in Asia, I’d be dumb not to. Nuoc mam is made from fermented anchovies, water, salt and sugar. Right back to the original sauce recipe. Next to salt, it’s a girl’s best friend.

But, here’s a surprise. Would you believe that ketchup, despite it being so near and dear to our hearts … and taste buds … is not the number one best selling condiment in America. Mayonnaise is.

One last factoid. Heinz is famous for its “57 varieties.” But before they even started to use this number as a product name, they already had more than sixty products. So they back tracked. “Heinz 57” is, in fact, made up from Mr. and Mrs. Heinz’s favorite numbers … 5 and 7.