Earlier this week, some of the folks at NPR had a post on “katchop,” made from ground anchovies. While their post has gone missing over the course of the week, it has continued to roll around in this archivist’s brain as inspiration. We have not talked yet much about sauces, or catsups/ketchups in particular. Which seems unfair to a condiment that has such a rich and complex history in food. Even in the modern age, we can’t agree on a single spelling!
Many of the historical cookbooks in our collection have one or more recipes for some variation of catsup/ketchup. More often that not, the recipes are included in sections on preservation and pickling. Ah, our old friend, pickling, has plenty more tricks!
Today, catsup/ketchup brings certain specific images to mind: bright red color, salty tang of tomato, fighting with a butter knife so the glass bottle will give up its goods. Here in America, with grilling season just getting started, it means hot dogs and hamburgers. And it goes perfect with fries. But, from a historical perspective, this delectable sauce has come a LONG way. It might just surprise you…
Richard Briggs’ The New Art of Cookery according to the present practice : being a complete guide to all housekeepers, on a plan entirely new : consisting of thirty-eight chapters … : with bills of fare for every month in the year, neatly and correctly printed, besides being another of those wonderfully long titles, comes from 1798. While this certainly is not the earlier receipt for ketchup, it is among the earliest in our collection. Most important to note, there’s not a tomato in sight. Early catsups/ketchups were loosely defined as being liquors extracted from a food.
In 1824, Mary Randolph’s The Virginia housewife : or, Methodical cook included a number of catsup recipes, which also appeared in the 1846 edition (below). First, there was oyster catsup. Basically, pounded, spiced, boiled oysters. This really wasn’t meant to be served as a condiment by itself, as we can see from Mrs. Randolph’s instructions. It was a way of adding flavor and substance to other sauces. Although a gob of this on a hamburger might be an interesting culinary adventure!
Mary Randolph’s book does contain something familiar, though: tomato catsup at last! Still no hints on serving, but this is certainly the ancestor of our modern condiment. It is something you could serve on a meat dish or spice up another sauce. Again, the idea is preservation of a food in a creative and usable form.
But Mrs. Randolph has at least one more catsup in her arsenal of recipes: walnut. We have talked about pickled walnuts on the blog before. But why simply pickle them, when you can pickle them, juice them, and spice the extracted liquor! It probably adds a nice nutty, earthy flavor to sauces and cooking juices and meats or poultry.
Later editions of The Williamsburg art of cookery; or, Accomplish’d gentlewoman’s companion: being a collection of upwards of five hundred of the most ancient & approv’d recipes in Virginia cookery … And also a table of favorite Williamsburg garden herbs, from the mid-1800;’s century reprinted Mary Randolph’s version of walnut catsup, too.
In some cases, we might wonder. why? Why did tomato catsup survive 170 years, when walnut, mushroom, and oyster versions didn’t? (Well, at least not in the same forms.) And then there are other cases why the “why” is not about survival, but why one might make something in the first place.
Enter Mrs. Beeton and her The book of household management : comprising information for the mistress … also sanitary, medical and legal memoranda with a history of the origin, properties, and use of all things connected with home life and comfort. The recipe below comes from the 1878 edition and should be left to speak for itself…
There isn’t much that can be said on the heels of a recipe like that, but it should give you something to think about if you’re grilling this summer. We talk a lot on the blog about how our food has a long history and that is always worth consideration. It never just appears on our plate. Tomato catsup/ketchup has had a couple hundred years of culinary history to develop to perfection. It stood on the backs of some predecessors and had the chance to learn from some failures.
And, hey, at least you are not dipping those fries in liver paste…