The Surprising History of Ketchup

Ketchup's journey is longer and stranger than you'd think. 

At one point or another, you've probably looked at a bottle of "Heinz tomato ketchup" and wonder why their packaging feels the need to be so redundant. After all, ketchup's existed in the same tomato-y form for your, my, or anyone else's lifetime, right?

That may be true, but the world's most common condiment, the one french fries could hardly exist without, has a much longer, and weirder history than you may have imagined. Its story spans continents, and started out tasting almost nothing like it probably does today — not to mention the fact that the idea of making a ketchup out of tomatoes wasn't quite as obvious as you might assume.

The first ketchup is centuries old … and very different.

The story of how that red tomato-based sauce made by a company in Pittsburgh ended up in your fridge actually starts with a fish sauce in China. Yes, really. According to the History Channel, a fish sauce referred to as "ge-thcup" or "koe-cheup" in the local southern Chinese dialect likely served as the starting point for ketchup's long, winding journey to its present form. Though its exact age is hard to pin down, but some food scholars argue that some version of this type of fish sauce may be more than two millennia old. The sauce that served as a starting point for modern ketchup was effectively a fermented paste derived from fish entrails and soybeans lauded for particularly strong pungence, and ability to hold up over the course of a long journey at sea.

It was precisely that last quality, in addition to its satisfyingly salty taste, that made the condiment an appealing commodity for British sailors along trade routes in southeast Asia. By the 1700s, this fermented fish paste had won enough of them over that they endeavored to bring it back home to England. In a preview of what was to come, the recipe was quickly bastardized, which I guess will happen when you're taking a condiment halfway around the world in the early 18th century. One contemporary recipe from 1736 called for reproducing the condiment by boiling "two quarts of strong, stale beer and half a pound of anchovies," which is then left to ferment.

In 1800s England, Ketchup was anything you wanted it to be.

Thankfully, ketchup's recipe has evolved from "mix stale beer with anchovies," but not without a circuitous route to its present form. Ketchup had caught on in England (and in the US) by the 19th century, but there wasn't a whole lot of consensus about how it should be made.

As a result, cooks could (and definitely did) make their own take on ketchup derived from all sorts of ingredients that we would hardly associate with the fast food items and backyard cookout staples we douse with ketchup today. We're talking oyster ketchup. Walnut ketchup. Lemon ketchup. Heck, even peach and plum served as the base for a ketchup. Pride and Prejudice author Jane Austen was known to be particularly fond of a certain mushroom ketchup recipe.

While these ketchups were either boiled into a sort of syrup or salted and left to ferment, they usually had something in common: an intensely salty and spicy flavor. It may have been a bit intense on the palate, but its longevity before spoiling certainly helped drive its adoption.

Why no tomato?

After reading that list of other forms of ketchup, you're probably wondering why tomato wasn't in the mix. As it turns out, the English considered the tomato to be poisonous for some time after their initial import to the country in the 1500s, with the plant relegated to the garden rather than the kitchen. That may have something to do with the tomato's acidity messing with lead pewter plates in a way that gave rise to lead poisoning.

It was an American named James Mease who's credited with trying out the first tomato-based ketchup in 1812. Of course, he referred to the tomato as the "love apple," given its supposed aphrodisiac properties. Mease's recipe is also notable for the fact that it incorporated alcohol, which, while shocking by today's standards, did have a bit of historic precedent based on how the Brits were making ketchup not even a hundred years earlier.

Towards a standardized tomato ketchup

As the 18th century wore on, tomato ketchup gradually rose to prominence, with the first bottled ketchups sold about 25 years after Mease's breakthrough. The only issue weas how to preserve the product, given the relative short growing season of tomatoes.

That often meant the introduction of all sorts of sketchy artificial preservatives in order to make up for the fact that some of the tomatoes in use were months old castoffs. That included things like sodium benzoate, as well as coal tar to keep the stuff looking brighter and fresher when it was anything but. Between the risk of spoilage and the questionable additives, consumers were rightly a little wary of early tomato ketchups.

Enter Henry Heinz, who had a better idea about how ketchup could be made safely. His big breakthrough was the incorporation of riper tomatoes, whose more plentiful quantities of natural pectin aided in preservation and improved quality. It seems obvious now, but that registered as a real ketchup breakthrough in 1876. Alongside those tomatoes, the initial version of Heinz's distilled vinegar (more preservation help), brown sugar (for a little sweetness), salt, and a variety of spices.

Those classic glass bottles weren't just an aesthetic choice, either. At a time when consumers were skeptical of ketchup's quality (or, more accurately, safety), Heinz's decision to use the glass bottle was a sign that he had nothing to hide. The rest, as they say, is history.

So, if at any point you decide to time travel to 18th-century England, bring a bottle of tomato ketchup with you. Not only will this form of "ketchup" blow their minds, you could probably convince the subjects of King George I, II, or III that you're a mythical being capable of safely ingesting poison. Maybe ketchup really is magical after all.


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