Pass the Ketchup, Please


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.

Tracy Garrett
History, Texas, cowboys, horses—these are a few of Tracy’s favorite things. Check out her westerns at www.TracyGarrett.com.

16 Comments

  1. Thanks, Tracy!

    I mentioned ketchup in one of my historicals and my editor questioned whether such a thing existed in the 1800s. We probably wouldn’t recognize the ketchup of old, but I venture to guess that without the sugar and salt it was better for us.

  2. Interesting post, Tracy!

    It’s always fun to track down information like this, and I love the old ad for Blue Label. Although watery tomato sauce on my hamburger and fries doesn’t sound to appetizing. Think I’ll stick with the thick Heinz of today. :o)

  3. You would not recognize the European versions either. No where near as tart, which seems strange given the history.

  4. Hi Tracy, I love this post! My daughter is ketchup affecionado and won’t even bother with anything not Heinz. But as a joke, friends always bring her little ketchup packets from wherever they travel. We seriously tried to get to Burger King on St. Pat’s as they had GREEN ketchup, but it was my niece’s bridal shower and we never made it. Fun info! xoxox

  5. It always amazes me how long preserved food has been around. Remember Pa Ingalls got snowed away from home over Christmas and he’d bought a can of oysters for oyster stew for Christmas dinner? Canned Oysters? In the 1800s? They had all that stuff. I think that’s amazing…and a little scary.

  6. I’m dieting and I have a recipe that calls for barbeque sauce and I went searching for sugar free barbeque sauce. I couldn’t find any. What’s up with that?
    They have sugar free everything else!!!

  7. Morning, all!

    Margaret, I’m sure it was better for all of us. But I still love my ketchup.

    Kirsten, I was surprised how few images of the old labels were available. Glad you liked the ones I found.

  8. Liz, I’m surprised, too. I know the Brits at least don’t use nearly the tomato ketchup that we do.

  9. Green ketchup, Tanya?? I don’t want to know how many chemicals that took to produce. lol

  10. Mary, food stuff in “tins” were available a lot earlier than I ever considered. The first canning factory in the US went into production in 1812.

  11. I, too, love ketchup and have made my own which really was pretty good but a lot of work and not near as thick. Better for me? Perhaps but I would redo some things in it including the amount of sugar.

  12. Connie, the early Heinz ads for their bottled ketchup were as: “Blessed relief for Mother and the other women in the household!” The amount of sugar is the reason I’d like to try and make my own but the price of tomatoes is too dear and I don’t have a garden patch.

  13. I’ve been making ketchup for years from a “Farm Journal” recipe book. Since ketchup is basically tomato sauce with peppers and onions cooked along with the tomatoes, you might be able to make a lower sugar version starting with canned tomato sauce and adding herbs, vinegar and sugar or sugar substitute. The recipe I use has dry mustard, vinegar, sugar, salt and cayenne. My kids say it’s barbeque sauce not ketchup. And yes there’s a lot of sugar. Might be fun to experiment with a cup or two of tomato sauce at a time to make a low sugar variety.

  14. That’s a good idea, HF. Ketchup and BBQ sauce are pretty much the same thing, the difference is the amount of molasses or brown sugar and the length of time you cook it.

  15. Tracy, what in the world would we do without ketcup? I doubt my grandkids would have ever learned to eat half of what they eat, if it hadn’t been for ketchup. Thanks for giving us the history. It’s funny, but before I even knew what you were blogging about today, I decided on the history of the Graham cracker for tomorrow! Great minds, or hungry ones … not sure which one, run in the same channel! Love your blog. Big hugs, Phyliss

  16. I hadn’t realized there were such a wide variety of early versions of Ketchup. Having had the fish sauce in the Far East, there is no way I would have connected the dots from it to ketchup. Not even close. With it and the other variations, I think it is more the use rather than the ingredients that connect them. I found a recipe for grape ketchup many years ago and made it. It was pretty good.

    Thanks for another interesting “history lesson.” They are always interesting and fun.

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