With a need to eat more wisely as I age, I spend a lot of time in the grocery store reading labels. While I have eliminated some foods from my shopping list that used to be standards, one staple I still insist on having is ketchup. However, when I realized how much sugar and salt go into my favorite condiment, I wondered if I could make it at home. And because I love history—and the history of the American west in particular–the next thought was ‘where was ketchup created’ and did they have it in the old west?
The origins of ketchup are thought to be in a Chinese pickled fish sauce or brine made in the late 1600s. The British brought the table sauce back from their explorations of Malay states—present day Malaysia and Singapore—and by 1740 it was a staple in their cuisine. The Malay word for the sauce was k?chap, which evolved into “ketchup” and became “catchup” and “catsup” in America.
Original versions of “ketchup” were made from lots of different savory items. One very popular one in America was mushrooms. The 1913 edition of Webster’s Dictionary defines catchup as “a table sauce made from mushrooms, tomatoes, walnuts, etc.”
Tomatoes weren’t used in making the sauce until the early 1800s. A recipe published in 1801 seems to be the first making what you and I would recognize as ketchup—although I doubt it would taste the same. Cooks didn’t begin adding sugar to the mixture until later in the century.
Most families made their own ketchup. In 1837, a man named Jonas Yerks is credited with making tomato ketchup a national food by producing and distributing his product across the U.S. It wasn’t long before other companies joined the rush, including H.J. Heinz, who launched their brand of ketchup in 1869.
Early versions were thin and watery, more like the fish sauce than the thick tomato product we’re accustomed to, but had less vinegar than the modern recipe. In fact, I doubt we’d recognize the jar of ketchup served by a Harvey Girl in a Harvey House Restaurant in the 1880s as the same product Americans have come to love–but it’s fun to know it was there.