A Brief History Of Ketchup

A look at the history of ketchup, America's favorite condiment. From its beginning as a fish sauce in China, to the sweet tomato version we love today.

Nearly everyone likes ketchup, even if what they like to put it on seems odd-Nixon covered his cottage cheese with it, the Japanese eat it on rice, and one ice cream manufacturer allegedly once tried a ketchup ice cream. But how did this condiment, by some estimates owned by 97% of US households, become America's favorite accompaniment to the classic hamburger and fries?

In the 1600s Dutch and British seamen brought back a salty pickled fish sauce called 'ketsiap' from China. In this version, it was more related to soy or oyster sauce than the sweet, vinegary substance we call ketchup today. Variations in both the name and the ingredients quickly developed. British alternatives included mushrooms (the favorite), anchovies, oysters, and walnuts. In 1690 the word 'catchup' appeared in print in reference to this sauce, and in 1711 'ketchup'.

The first ketchup recipe was printed in 1727 in Elizabeth Smith's The Compleat Housewife, and called for anchovies, shallots, vinegar, white wine, sweet spices (cloves, ginger, mace, nutmeg), pepper, and lemon peel. Eighty-five years later the first tomato ketchup recipe was published in Nova Scotia by American ex-pat James Mease, which he often refers to as 'love apple' ketchup-he attempts to give it more cachet by stating that this variation is influenced by French cooking, although there is no proof of it.

Recipes continued to appear periodically, featuring mushrooms in Britain and tomatoes in the United States. A New England Farmer offered it for sale in 1830 in bottles, and priced from 33 to 50 cents. In 1837, Americans selling ketchup in Britain were encouraged to rename it 'tomato chutney' in order to draw attention to the differences between their product and the mushroom ketchup popular in Britain. In addition to the difference in ingredients, the British version also differed in texture, being nearly transparent and very thin in consistency.

Ketchup was sold nationwide in the US by 1837 thanks to the hard work of Jonas Yerkes, who sold the product in quart and pint bottles. He used the refuse of tomato canning-skins, cores, green tomatoes, and lots of sugar and vinegar. Lots of other small companies followed suit-by 1900 there were 100 manufacturers of ketchup. The big success came in 1872 when HJ Heinz added ketchup to his line of pickled products and introduced it at the Philadelphia fair. The Heinz formula has not changed since, and has become the standard by which other ketchups are rated.

In 1848 some ketchup manufacturers came under fire for their unsanitary practices-coal tar was frequently used to heighten the red color. Others made the condiment from concentrated tomato pulp in the off-season, which they stored in questionable circumstances. This debate continued until the 1900s, when the Pure Food Act put strict limits on food manufacturers. (Today's FDA has very strict guidelines on what even constitutes ketchup, specifying the spices that must be used, as well as the thickness of the end result.)

So, what's in a name? Variations such as catsup, catchup, katsup, and others abounded alongside 'ketchup'. However, when the Reagan administration briefly decided to count ketchup as a vegetable in 1981, Del Monte Catsup found itself out of the loop due to their spelling-they permanently changed to 'ketchup', but by then public outcry had forced a reversal of administration policy. Ever since, though, you'll be hard-pressed to find a bottle from any manufacturer labeled anything other than 'ketchup'.

Although it frequently graces such foods as fries and greasy burgers, ketchup itself has a moderate health benefit, as it contains lycopene, an antioxidant associated with decreased cancer risk. (Unlikely that it's enough to cancel out the negative effects of the fries, though.)

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