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Making the magic red condiment takes time and a bushel of tomatoes

Wed., Aug. 26, 2009

Jeremy Hansen, the chef at Santé in downtown Spokane, handed me a plate of potatoes with a side of his homemade ketchup.

“That’s 70 hours,” he said.

He was referring to his ketchup. After spending some 14 hours making a less-intensive recipe for ketchup one day earlier this month, I can vouch for him. Ketchup-making is not for impatient cooks.

A few years ago, I stumbled onto a ketchup recipe when paging through a family cookbook. I was puzzled.

“Catsup?” as the recipe spells it in my great grandmother’s handwriting. “Who makes catsup?”

I’ve spent my life dipping fries in Heinz’s vivid red sauce. Predictably parked on restaurant tables next to the salt and pepper, it always seemed elemental, something more likely extracted from the ground than cooked in a kitchen.

I was curious and decided that I would one day make the recipe. But every time I looked at it, I grew intimidated.

For one thing, the recipe calls for a bushel of tomatoes, and my shaded yard may yield one ripe tomato a year.

For another, directions on the recipe are vague: “Take one bushel of tomatoes and cook down to 1 gallon. Then add other ingredients.”

This summer I pledged to get over my fear and follow through in time for tomato season.

A short history of ketchup

Ketchup was first created in Asia, but it was tomato-less and similar to a soy sauce, Andrew F. Smith, who wrote “Pure Ketchup: The History of America’s National Condiment,” said in an interview.

The British, who didn’t have a supply of soybeans, transformed ketchup by using other ingredients, like anchovies. To the Brits, ketchup was different from a sauce in that it was based on a single ingredient that was spiced, instead of two or more. Under that definition ketchup can be made from just about anything, Smith said.

And until Americans invented tomato ketchup and successfully commercialized the product, it pretty much was. Smith has found recipes for ketchup based on numerous foods, including mushrooms, cucumbers, currants and liver.

By the middle of the 19th century, American companies were bottling and selling tomato ketchup, but it was expensive, costing $4.50 for a pint in 1850, according to an advertisement Smith found. That’s about $115 in today’s dollars.

“That was something that was considered an upper-class condiment. If you wanted ketchup on your own you could make it easily,” Smith said. “At the end of the tomato season you’ve got all these tomatoes left over and what do you do with them?”

Thus ketchup cooking in American homes became popular. Soon, however, as tomato production increased significantly after the Civil War, the price of commercial ketchup sank dramatically.

“When that hit in the 1880s, 1890s, almost everybody said it’s much easier just to buy it for that amount of money than it is to make it up on your own,” Smith said.

Tasty treat or waste of time?

The potential for homemade ketchup to be cost prohibitive hasn’t changed more than a century later. Using math skills I haven’t used since elementary school, I cut my great-grandma’s ketchup recipe to a fourth and determined that I needed a peck of tomatoes. Through Internet research I concluded that meant I needed 12 or 13 pounds of tomatoes.

I paid $26 for 13 pounds of tomatoes at the Spokane Farmers Market. All said and done, those yielded about two pints of ketchup. Twenty-six dollars at Costco clearly would have bought a lot more ketchup. So if cost is a concern and you want to make the condiment: Plant a big garden.

When my grandmother was growing up in the 1920s and 1930s in Toledo, Ohio, her mother usually made ketchup each year. Her mom was in charge of the cooking, her dad led the bottling effort.

Sandy Oliver, a food historian and editor of Food History News, which is based in Maine, said by the 1920s most city-dwelling Americans probably bought commercial ketchup.

“Whether you made it or not likely depended on where you lived,” she said.

Why my grandma’s family made ketchup long after many Americans had given up had partly to do with a source of tomatoes. My great-grandma had a supplier: Her father grew lots of vegetables on rural land just over the border in Michigan.

And there was another motivation: My great-grandfather really liked ketchup and didn’t want the processed stuff.

“He always thought that anything you made in the home was better than what you buy in the store,” my grandma, Ruth Ermish, told me recently.

Hansen, of Santé, agrees. The restaurant he owns with his wife, Kate Hansen, is stocked with only homemade sauces. He makes not only the ketchup, but the barbecue sauce, the dressings, syrups and his version of Tabasco.

He admits that it might be more cost-effective to buy Heinz. But Heinz is stuffed with corn syrup and other ingredients he questions.

“I’d rather put good, wholesome food on their plates,” Hansen said. “I wouldn’t compromise freshness and quality for anything.”

The allure of Heinz, however, is strong. Even his restaurant occasionally gets requests for America’s most popular ketchup.

“I say, ‘I don’t have that, but I have this,’ ” Hansen said. “They usually like it.”

I’d rate Hansen’s homemade ketchup, and even the batch I made, much higher than the processed stuff. The flavor is more complex. It’s tangier with hints of celery and other spices, and it’s got some kick.

Still, if I had a McDonald’s fry that needed some dipping, I think I’d choose the traditional ketchup flavor I’m used to: Heinz.

I’m not proud to say it, but then again, I don’t think I’d have to worry about being served a McDonald’s fry at Hansen’s restaurant.

While today’s taste buds might question homemade ketchup on hot dogs or fries, it still works well on foods we usually don’t consider mixing with ketchup.

My grandma said her family used homemade ketchup on beef and pork sandwiches and her mom often set out a dish whenever she cooked a roast. She also used it as a flavor enhancer in soups.

To my surprise, two food historians I interviewed for this story, somewhat guiltily, said they generally preferred Heinz to homemade ketchup (or at least in Oliver’s case that her husband preferred Heinz and that she no longer makes ketchup).

Smith, who edits the “Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America,” said he uses homemade ketchup for nontraditional uses in recipes he’s created. Otherwise, he usually uses Heinz.

“It’s hard when you’ve grown up with a commercial product that’s actually very good. You then try to make your own and it doesn’t taste like it and it always tastes a little off to me,” Smith said.

“We’ve grown accustomed to Heinz and the sweet, sugary taste that’s there and the sourness that’s there.”

Heinz has about 60 percent of the ketchup market in the United States. It’s even responsible for the popularized spelling of the product. Until the early part of the 20th century, “catsup” was more common.

“Heinz dominated the ketchup market to such extent that even their competitors changed the spelling of the name of their ketchup,” Smith said.

Despite his preference, he told me: “You should encourage people to make ketchups.”

Smith added that even if someone doesn’t want to bother with tomato ketchup, there are numerous other old-fashioned ketchup recipes using other products, like apples and walnuts.

“There’s nothing quite like them in America today,” he said. “They were lost to commercialization,”

My grandma was an expert canner throughout her life, but despite an upbringing that included annual ketchup cooking, she only made ketchup a few times as an adult.

“I made it until I decided it was too much work,” she said. “It might have been because we weren’t using it as much either.”

My grandma told me that when ketchup use in her parent’s household declined, her mom also didn’t want to continue the hassle – even though she had a husband who demanded homemade ketchup.

So on a few occasions, her mom bought Heinz, mixed in some spices and poured it into the same bottles that had been used for the homemade version.

Grandma recalled: “She said, ‘Well, he didn’t know the difference,’ but I think maybe he did.”

Great-grandma’s Tomato Catsup recipe (with extra directions)

This recipe is attributed to Mrs. Orville Brown, aka Anna, a neighbor to my great-grandparents in Toledo, Ohio. Not having a pot that could fit a bushel of tomatoes, I cut the following by a fourth:

1 bushel tomatoes

3 large onions

2 tablespoons salt

2 ½ cups sugar

1 tablespoon black pepper

1 ½ tablespoons ground mustard

½ tablespoon cloves

½ tablespoon allspice

½ tablespoon red pepper

1 tablespoon celery seed

Cut up a a bushel of tomatoes (or peck, for a quarter-size version) and put them in a pot. Heat on low or medium low for about 2 hours.

Push cooked tomatoes through a food mill. Place back in pot and continue heating on low or medium low. When the ketchup gets close to a desired thickness (this could be eight to 10 hours), add other ingredients.

The recipe calls for cutting up onions and placing them with spices in a cheesecloth bag for about 10 minutes. I did this for the onions, but the spices I just placed into the pot. For the red pepper, I used cayenne, and the food historians I talked to said that likely would have been the pepper used in the recipe.

I kept the onion bag in the ketchup for about the last hour of cooking, not the last 10 minutes. Stop cooking whenever you like the consistency.

Yield: About 2 pints.


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