Ketchup: The History of a Condiment

To many, tomato ketchup is the quintessential American condiment. But ketchup was not invented in the United States, and did not always include tomatoes. The History Guy remembers the surprising history of ketchup.

From the video: There is perhaps no condiment considered more quintessentially American than ketchup. It lines the aisles in supermarkets and adorns countless tables in restaurants. Fast food joints have tossed packets of the stuff into bags for decades, and, while a recent survey by weber grill has sriracha passing up ketchup in condiment popularity,  ketchup is still likely to win any popularity contest if you ask your average American eight-year-old. Ketchup is certainly popular, in the US and elsewhere, although the heavily sugared tomato paste has plenty of detractors who decry it as bland, overly-sweet, or just plain gross.

Despite its modern associations, ketchup didn’t originate in America, and for centuries it wasn’t made with tomatoes at all. The history of ketchup is history that deserves to be remembered. 

Ketchup’s earliest origins take us back to south-east Asia, and its ingredients were about as far from the condiment we know today as you can get. In the early 16th century English traders in the East Indies came across a sauce called ke-tchup or ku-chiap, a fish sauce. The word likely has its roots in Southern Min, a language spoken by Chinese traders from the Fujian and Guangdong provinces, meaning “preserved fish sauce”, which had become ‘kicap’ in Malay or similar words in other south-east asian languages.

Local recipes varied, but among the earliest is recorded in a Chinese text from 544: “take the intestine, stomach, and bladder of the yellow fish, shark and mullet, and wash them well. Mix them with a moderate amount of salt and place them in a jar. Seal tightly and incubate in the sun. It will be ready in twenty days in summer, fifty days in spring or fall and a hundred days in winter.” In the next centuries, soy and bean based sauces became dominant in China, while fish sauces were popular further south.

Fish sauces proliferated throughout the region, in places like Thailand, Indonesia, and along the Mekong river, which transfers through modern Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Many recipes were centered around salted and fermented anchovies. Local sauces made of fermented fish still exist today, and in Indonesia ‘kecap’ means ‘sauce’.

It is less clear where British traders heard of the sauce. A 1732 recipe mentions Bengkulu, a city in Sumatra where the British East India Company established a presence by 1685. They may also have heard the word from Southern Min speaking traders at any of their settlements. British merchant Charles Lockyer reported in his “An Account of the Trade in India” in 1711 of seeing huge numbers of Chinese trading ships throughout the region, and that the “best ketchup comes from Tonkin”, in Northern Vietnam or China.

As with many of the products England imported home, they very quickly made the product their own. One of the first things the English did, from a recipe from 1736, was add beer. The recipe calls for boiling down “2 gallons of strong, stale beer and a half pound of anchovies” adding that “the stronger and staler the beer, the better the catch-up will be.” Eliza Smith’s 1727 “The Compleat Housewife” included a ketchup recipe that had a “pint of the best white wine vinegar” and shallots, ginger, and mushrooms in addition to anchovies. A Jonathan Swift poem from 3 years later reads “And, for our home-bred British cheer,/ Botargo, catsup, and caviare”. (Botargo is a fish egg dish.)

Early ketchups were made of all manner of things, such as cherries, oysters, blackberries, mushrooms, and even walnuts. For about a century mushroom ketchups with were popular in England, made by putting whole mushrooms in jars with salt. It is “traditionally thin and almost black”, and has been described as “halfway between worcestershire sauce and soy sauce”, with, of course, undercurrents of mushroom. Ketchups of all kinds can vary significantly in consistency, from watery to the thick version more familiar to modern diners. Walnut ketchup was a favorite of Jane Austen.

About the only thing that early ketchups weren’t made of were tomatoes. Tomatoes are native to western south America, and were consumed by native populations in central and south America before contact; the word Tomato come from the Aztec word “tomatl”. It isn’t clear who first brought the plants to Europe. Cortez may have brought them when he returned from capturing Tenochtitlan in 1521, but Columbus may have brought specimens back as early as 1493. They were described in mid-16th century Italy and Spain, but were often grown for ornamental purposes. Still, they grew well in the Mediterranean, and over the next century became staples in Mediterranean cooking.

The tomato came later to northern Europe and to England by the 1590s, but it gained something of a negative reputation. One reason is that Europeans recognized the fruit as a relative of nightshade, and the fruits themselves similar to nightshade berries, which are extremely toxic. While tomatoes are a part of the same family, they are, of course, perfectly safe for consumption – other nightshade family foods include eggplants, bell peppers, and chilli peppers.

The English botanist John Gerard authored the “Herball, or General History of Plants” in 1597 – and while the work is largely a translation of earlier works, Gerrard’s work became the most prevalent English book on botany in the 17th century. While Gerard knew that tomatoes were eaten in Spain and Italy, he still declared them poisonous. His views were influential enough to steer many people away, even if they didn’t think they were poisonous.

Another possibility lies in a reaction between tomatoes and pewter. Pewter plates often had a relatively high lead content, and when brought into contact with it, highly acidic foods like tomatoes can “leach” the lead, possibly causing lead poisoning.

Other English herbalists were skeptical of the plant as well: the botanist John Parkinson in 1629 called them “love apples” and said that while they were eaten in hotter climates, the English only grew them for curiosity and “the beauty of their fruit.” Another botanist, John Hill, mentioned that the English sometimes ate them in soups in 1754, but also that “there are persons who think them not wholseome”. Tomatoes did appear as ingredients in “the Arte of Cookery” by Hannah Glasse in 1758. They were growing in the Carolinas by 1710.

One of the earliest appearances of Tomato ketchup was in 1801, which is credited to Sandy Addison. Another early Tomato ketchup recipe appears in an English book in 1817 which still included half a pound of anchovies, and was included alongside walnut, mushroom, pudding, and oyster ketchups. James Mease invented a tomato ketchup in 1812, and Thomas Jefferson’s cousin Mary Randolph included a tomato recipe in her 1824 cookbook “The Virginia Housewife”. 

In 1834, Ohio physician John Cook Bennett took a different view of tomatoes: he declared they were a panacea that could cure diarrhea, indigestion, jaundice, rheumatism, and could even prevent cholera. Bennett was a physician, known also for creating an early medical diploma mill;  he sold medical degrees for $10 in the 1820s. Bennett encouraged everyone to eat tomatoes in any form, including ketchup, as they were “the most healthy material of the Materia Alimentary”.

Bennett claimed he had visited European hospitals that recommended tomatoes to healing patients, but even if he was lying he wasn’t the first to talk about possible medical applications for the plant. Thomas Jefferson records that his friend Dr. John De Sequeyra thought if someone ate “An abundance of these apples would never die.” Other doctors in the early 1800s said tomatoes could cure headaches and were good against “bilious diseases”, and later many supported Bennett’s conclusions. 

Bennett published his beliefs widely in American newspapers. Papers even began reporting that the tomato cure was working. In 1836 Archibald Miles, a seller of patent medicines, met Bennett, and shortly after began selling “Dr. Miles’ Compound Extract of Tomato” pills. The pills were so popular that imitations proliferated, and even instigated a “tomato pill war” between Miles’ and a competitor, Guy Phelps, in the newspapers. Eventually, readers would learn that neither pill actually contained any tomato.  

Ketchup recipes in the early 1800s were either made at home or sold in small batches by local farmers. This changed by 1837, when Jonas Yerkes became possibly the first person to sell ketchup in bottles, by the quart and pint. Other manufacturers followed suit, but there were some problems with producing ketchup in large enough quantities to sell commercially. Tomatoes, especially in the north, had short growing seasons that required the preservation of tomato pulp that could be used year-round. With no regulation and a carelessness typical of the age, vats of stored tomato pulp became infested with mold, yeast, spores, and bacteria.

Cookbook author Pierre Blott described ketchups in 1866 as “filthy, decomposed, and putrid”. Some producers only made ketchup as a byproduct of tomato canning, using leftover pieces of tomato they sometimes swept off the floor. The ketchup was also often cooked in copper tubs, which could cause chemical reactions that made the condiment poisonous. Producers made up for these failings by filling their ketchups with preservatives like boric and salicylic acid, and added coal tar to dye the yellowish stuff red. An 1896 study of commercial ketchups determined that over 90% of them contained “injurious ingredients”. 

Enter Henry J. Heinz. Heinz formed the Heinz and Noble company with a friend in 1860, first producing horseradish in clear bottles so consumers could see the quality of the product. He would later patent his now iconic octagonal glass bottle, which had a narrow neck to prevent air contact from discoloring the product. The company grew rapidly, but went bankrupt in the aftermath of the panic of 1873.

In 1876, he formed a new company, the F & J Heinz company with his brother and a cousin, and one of their first products was Heinz Ketchup, first introduced with the spelling ‘catsup’. At the time, neither spelling was standard, but as a general rule in the 1800s British imports used the term “ketchup” with a “k”  while domestic American brands preferred ‘catsup’ with a “C”. It is partially thanks to Heinz’ decision to favor the “ketchup” spelling that would help it become the most prevalent spelling today.

His ketchup was different from the get go: while it did include some of the same preservatives and coal tar, Heinz had a goal of creating a consistent and quality product, and his use of elm bark helped to stabilize the product. His was also thicker than most ketchups of the time, and he took some inspiration from German ketchups, which combined sugar and vinegar to emphasize a sweet and sour mix of flavors. Modern ketchup increases its thickness by the addition of products like Xanthan gum – Heinz says that ketchup must flow no faster than .028 miles per hour.

Heinz was also remarkably kind to his workers, offering insurance, dining rooms, gymnasiums, and even an on-site manicurist. He opened his factory to public tours to tout its cleanliness. He felt that these aims would help public trust, and, ultimately, benefit the business. At the turn of the century, Heinz saw opportunity in the numerous poor-quality ketchups on the market if he could create a preservative free ketchup, a project he gave to his Chief Food Scientist G.F. Mason.

Mason’s solution not only revolutionized the safety of ketchup, but the taste as well – his stable combination contained vinegar, sugar, and salt. The increased vinegar helped to protect the tomato from spoilage, and the recipe gave the product a new taste.

Heinz’ preservative free ketchup was on the market by 1906, when he produced five million bottles of the stuff. The recipe had a downside though: it made his ketchup ten or twenty cents more expensive than his competitors. This, coupled with his desire to market Heinz as the leader in safe food manufacturing, led him to be a leader in support of the Food and Drug Act. Heinz’ son Howard argued to President Roosevelt that though the regulation might cost companies money, it would “inspire confidence in commercially prepared foods”. 

The passage of the act and success of the Heinz company seems to vindicate his strategy. Heinz ketchup has a 60% market share in the US, and greater in the UK. For Americans, ketchup is almost an institution, an integral part of 4th of July cookouts, partner to classic American foods, and available freely in little packets at fast food restaurants. The military has spent billions on ketchup to keep soldiers in the red stuff, which has come in handy for the sometimes less than appetizing meals they’ve had to eat. Ketchup has even been to space.

But perhaps no place symbolizes America’s relationship with ketchup better than the world’s largest catsup bottle, a unique painted water tower built in 1949 next to a now defunct ketchup bottling plant outside of Collinsville, Illinois. 

Despite its close relationship with Americans, tomato ketchup is enjoyed throughout the world, and the US doesn’t even necessarily eat the most per capita – in 2013 the US was tied for fifth, behind the UK, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Canada. In Canada, Heinz bottles have even had a recipe for ‘ketchup cake’ on the back, which I can only hope tastes better than it sounds.  

Ketchup as we understand it today owes a lot to history, and of course, to Heinz, who has become the standard for the taste and consistency of commercial ketchup. In fact, the thickness of ketchup actually makes it a non-Newtonian fluid, or a fluid with a viscosity that is variable based on applied force. It also has a unique shear-thinning property. This means that hitting a bottle of ketchup actually decreases its viscosity, allowing it to flow faster out of the bottle, although it is an… imperfect art.

While the perfect way to get ketchup out of a glass bottle is a subject of some debate, Heinz recommends aiming for the ‘57’ on the glass neck. As for that 57 – Heinz chose the number as he thought it felt iconic and ‘lucky’, and was inspired by an ad for shoes he saw in an elevator, promising 21 styles of shoes. When he introduced it his company was already producing 60 different products.

Despite its sometimes pedestrian reputation, ketchup has a global and interesting history, and one, we’re sure, will add flavor to the human experience well into the future.

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