Did George Washington use Ketchup?

Jonathan Townsend

Posted on August 01 2012

Did George Washington Use Ketchup?

O.k., so it may be an absurd question. The answer, however, is probably…but it may not be what you think.

When I hear the word “KETCHUP,” the tangy tomato condiment immediately blots across the canvas my mind like a crimson Rorschach test. Ketchup is a necessary component of the backyard cookout. It’s the not-so-secret ingredient to many a blue-ribbon meatloafs. There’s a bottle of it sitting on the tables of most every diner, separating the salt and pepper shakers like misbehaving children.

But when you’re in Chicago, don’t ask for ketchup on your hot dog, or you’ll be branded a tourist. Um…the fanny pack may give you away too.

One of my all-time favorite Sunday-morning comics was by the master cartoonist, Gary Larsen. It featured a committee of ruminating vultures huddling over their rather ripe roadkill repast, while two of them reminisce the virtues of…(you remember this one too?)…ketchup.

Believe it or not, ketchup has been around for hundreds of years; that’s just about as long as the debate that has raged over whether the word is spelled “C-A-T-C-H-U-P,” C-A-T-S-I-P,” or “K-E-T-C-H-U-P.”  The Oxford English Dictionary declares the winner: “Ketchup” is apparently the more commonly used of the three, so I’ll stick with that name for now.

But wait, I thought people long ago believed tomatoes were poisonous!

Many did, and for good reason. The tomato belongs to the nightshade family. And with the tag “nightshade,” the tomato is looking pretty evil. Other people — some apparently with a death wish, knew better.

It is believed that the great Spanish explorer, Hernan Cortes, may have been the first to introduce the “love apple” to Europe upon his return from South America. By the early 1500s, tomatoes became a staple in Spanish and Italian diets. By 1600, many British cooks decided it was time for the Spaniards and Italians to share in the fun. By the mid-18th century, tomatoes were fairly common English fare, typically used in soups and as garnishes or sauces for meats.

In the book Every Man His Own Gardener, by John Abercrombie and Thomas Mawe, 1767,  it reads, “[Tomatoes] in some families, are much used in soups, and are also often used to pickle, both when they are green, and when they are ripe.”

There are numerous references and recipes for sauces made from tomatoes. Some of these recipes included garlic and spices, as well as vinegar — typical ingredients in modern-day tomato ketchup. Here’s a recipe from the Culina famulatrix medicinæ: or, Receipts in modern cookery,  by Alexander Hunter, published in 1810:

And here’s another recipe from 1817:

But who came up with the word “Ketchup”?

Who knows? There’s much debate over the origin of this word. Some say it’s a variant of a Chinese word for fish sauce. Others say it is a Malay word for the same.

We know from references and recipes that by the mid 1700s, “Ketchup” was a culinary term spoken frequently in English kitchens. The condiment, however, associated with it was not a tomato sauce, but rather a flavorful concoction, sometimes fermented, sometimes not, based on either anchovies or shellfish,  walnuts, or mushrooms. Martha Washington included a recipe in her Booke of Cookery for pickled oysters, a fermented variant of ketchup.

You can still find a direct descendant of 18th century ketchup either in your refrigerator, or if not there, on a shelf at your local grocer: it’s called Worcestershire sauce (that’s pronouced “wuus-ter-sher” for those who, like me, have difficulty slurring the word enough). The bottle in my refrigerator has been there since, well, maybe even the 18th century!

18th Century Ketchup Recipes

If you’re an 18th century reenactor, historian, or foodie and you still crave your red stuff, you’re pretty safe to use a recipe like those above. Tomatoes will kill neither you nor generally your authenticity, unless, of course, you’re deathly allergic to them. Just don’t call it ketchup during the event; instead, call it tomato sauce. But if you want that authentic “ketchup experience,” and you’re up to making your own, there are many recipes found in the old cookbooks. Here are a couple:

Ok, those are a bit time- and labor-intensive. Here’s an authentic non-fermented recipe for mushroom ketchup that is quite tasty! We demonstrated this recipe in our video from our Cooking with Jas. Townsend & Son video series.

And here’s the written recipe:

18th Century Mushroom Ketchup

2lbs fresh mushrooms, wiped clean and broken or cut into small pieces.
2T Kosher or Sea Salt
2 -3 Bay Leaves
1 Large Onion, chopped
Zest of 1 Lemon
1T Grated Horseradish
1/4t Ground Clove
1/2t Ground Allspice
Pinch of Cayenne
1/2c Cider Vinegar

Combine the mushrooms, salt, and bay leaves in a non-metallic pot or bowl. Cover and let set overnight.

Transfer mushroom mixture to a cooking pot and add the remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce heat to low to simmer the mixture for 15 minutes. (Optional: you could simmer the mixture longer, stirring all the while, to reduce the liquid to about half for a more concentrated flavor.)

Remove from the heat and allow to cool. Strain out all the solids through a piece of cloth, squeezing or wringing the cloth to remove as much liquid as possible.

Bottle and cork.

PLEASE NOTE! Don’t throw away the wrung-out mushroom mixture! Spread it out on a baking sheet and dry it thoroughly in a 200-degree (F) oven. Remove the mushrooms when they are completely dry and hard. This can be ground into a powder and stored in a tin for seasoning or left in its original form to be added to soups and stews. This mushroom seasoning is absolutely delicious!

So when did Ketchup turn red?

While there may be earlier recipes for a tomato-based ketchup, the earliest we found was in the Apicius Redivivus: Or, The Cook’s Oracle, by William Kitchiner from 1817. This is an interesting book in that it, like the aforementioned book by Charlotte Mason, also includes a good number of ketchup recipes, including “White Catsup” made with white wine vinegar and anchovies, cucumber ketchup, a sweet orange and brandy flavored ketchup for puddings, “Cockle and Muscle” ketchup, oyster ketchup, walnut ketchup, as well as mushroom ketchup. But it’s the “Tomata Catsup” that captures my attention.

This recipe seems to be a marriage of a typical tomato sauce recipe with a typical fish-based ketchup recipe.

By the mid 1800’s numerous recipes were written for tomato ketchup, many of which had dropped the fermented sea creatures from the list of ingredients. References, however, still are found from as late as the 1870’s  (Check this link) which refer to the making of mushroom ketchup. So tomato ketchup hadn’t entirely beaten out the competition yet.

Our association of the word “ketchup” to that red blot running down our shirts, is likely the result of some fancy promotion and distribution footwork by the all-familiar Heinz family, who got their start in 1876. By the turn of the 20th century they had made a name for themselves and had given the folks of Worcester a run for their money. It’s also very likely that they changed forever the common perception of what ketchup was. By the early 1900s, they were shipping every year 12 million of those familiar glass bottles to kitchens around the world and to local diners like the one near you.

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