Editor’s note: Michelle’s Foods of The Americas series on tomatoes continues this week with a surprising account of the origin of everyone’s favorite condiment, ketchup. Click here to read Part I about the origins of the tomato, and click here to read Part II as the tomato makes its culinary journey across the ocean from west to east. Part III follows the journey through Persia and the Far East. Enjoy!
By Michelle Bakeman
The tomato journeyed from its native Americas to the nations of the far reaches of the globe and then back again upon the ships of the newcomers to the New World. The fruit became an integral part of the burgeoning cuisines of the Caribbean, adding the color and zest that were to become the trademarks of countless regional dishes.
In kitchens just a bit to the north, the tomato was born again in the Creole cuisine of Louisiana and can claim its place as one of the main ingredients that distinguish Creole from Cajun food.
This has to do with the history of the people that make up the Cajun populace, those of Acadian ancestry.
Acadians were French colonists who settled in New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia (the Canadian Maritime provinces). They were expelled from the region by the Protestant British in the 1700s, many of them sent to the area that is now Louisiana, and per their roots, their culture and cuisine are heavily influenced by France.
Creoles, on the other hand, have a heritage whose influences span a wider array of cultures, lending to a different kind of cooking, one that fuses the flavors of Spain, Portugal, France, and West Africa with local ingredients. Because the tomato plays a central role in the cuisines of the mix, it also serves to add its flair to the resulting Creole dishes, bestowing lusciousness to gumbos and jambalayas.
Aside from acknowledging the renowned Cajun and Creole cuisines of the United States, how can one define the other cuisines of a country of immigrants? So often described as a melting pot of cultures, the foods of the U.S. are a reflection of a multitude of heritages. California cuisine is one that has emerged in the last several decades, and according to some, would not exist without sun-dried tomatoes. And while descriptors like ‘Tex-Mex’, ‘Chicago style’, and ‘New York style’ are often employed to describe dishes from specific regions, if you live in the U.S., chances are that you do or have done almost all of the following: you have sunk your teeth into juicy tomatoes on top of your favorite pizza, you have opened your mouth as wide as you can to take that first bite of a fat hamburger with sliced tomatoes on sizzling beef, you have crunched a toasted BLT and have reveled in the magic of that tangy tomato and smoky bacon combo with crispy lettuce and creamy mayo, you have licked the salt off your fingers after you have devoured a fried green tomato in the South, you’ve smiled walking into the house when you smelled mom’s lasagna or spaghetti with meat sauce, and you’ve thought, “Thank you, God! It’s not liver and onions tonight.” You’ve sunk into a booth after work on a Friday at your cozy neighborhood Mexican restaurant and dunked that first corn chip into a big, crimson bowl of salsa and then exhaled; you made it through another week. Did someone say Margarita? You have sat in front of a plate of sliced, rainbow-colored heirloom tomatoes from Grandma’s garden, and you’ve reached for that most cherished of condiment, over and over again, to slather it upon everything from your French fries to your scrambled eggs, because let’s face it; where ketchup is concerned, there are no rules.
Ketchup can be found in 97 percent of kitchens in the United States. So what are its origins? It seems that the first ketchup was actually from somewhere in Asia (most accounts say that it made its way to China from Vietnam), pronounced “ke-tsiap,” and was a pickled fish sauce, containing not even a trace of tomato. It was English sailors in the 1600s who encountered it in its original form, which was much closer to a Worcestershire sauce than to the modern ketchup. Tomatoes were not added until the 1700s, whereupon the resulting sauce was thin and also became known as “tomato soy.” In fact, the first tomato ketchup recipe to be published showed up in 1812. It was written by a man named James Mease, who was a horticulturalist and who still referred to the tomato as “love apple” as the French did, even though he was American born from Philadelphia. In his ketchup recipe, he called for tomato pulp, various spices, and brandy, but no sugar or vinegar.
His instructions were as follows:
“Slice the apples thin, and over every layer sprinkle a little salt: cover them, and let them lie twenty-four hours; then beat them well, and simmer them for half an hour in a bell-metal kettle; then add mace & allspice. When cold, add two cloves of raw shallots cut small, and half a gill* of brandy to each bottle, which must be corked tight and kept in a cool place.”
*1 gill = about 4 fluid ounces
The first ketchup makers encountered problems, most of which had to do with preservation. Many of the first commercial ketchups were contaminated with bacteria and mold, and were dangerous to consume. Similarly, the first attempts at combating this resulted in products equally as harmful as the preservatives that were being added to the ketchups were themselves suspected of being dangerous to humans, namely sodium benzoate and coal tar (coal tar adds a red color as well). Some manufacturers were seeking a natural preservative upon the eve of the 1900s.
One such man was a Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, who, together with a man named Henry J. Heinz sought to solve the ketchup problem. Enter the scenario vinegar and sugar, both of which retard the growth of bacteria. Sugar was being added to ketchups by those with an English background, as the English regarded the tomato as a fruit and treated it as they would other fruits, enjoying it sweetened. Both Wiley and Heinz were convinced that high quality products could also aid in reducing spoilage, and insisted upon the use of only ruby red ripe tomatoes in their ketchup production, as they contain a higher percentage of pectin, which is a natural preservative. This, together with the vinegar and sugar, was the solution, the end result being the ketchup that we eat today. Long story short, Heinz Ketchup grossed $278.6 million in sales in 2016. So obsessed are Americans with this product that they can be seen wearing t-shirts sold by Heinz that say “I put Ketchup on my Ketchup.”
Is ketchup the tomato’s finest hour then? I suppose the answer to that varies depending upon who you ask. For me, nothing will ever top the sensation of eating a fresh tomato from my uncle’s farm in Chile. I don’t know if it is due to the fact that I have always eaten them seated at my grandfather’s table, surrounded by no less than at least fifteen family members, everyone talking over one another and laughing. In my memory, those tomatoes of my childhood, were the reddest, the sweetest, and the juiciest tomatoes in the world, eaten in summer, eaten with family.
Tomato Fun Facts
- Did you know that ketchup can be used to polish copper? The acid in the paste takes the tarnish right off of your favorite copper kitchenware.
- Sliced tomatoes can be used to treat burns. The lycopene in the tomatoes prevents blistering and stops the pain.
- Tomato juice shines hair. Use it after you condition. Massage the juice in, leave it for a couple of minutes and rinse….instant shine.
- Tomato juice is great for your skin. It contains high concentrations of vitamins A and C, which skin loves. Make a paste of tomato juice and honey, rub it on your face and leave it there for fifteen minutes. When you rinse it off, your skin will glow. Mix tomato juice with lemon juice to make a potion that has the power to shrink pores, fight acne, and remove blackheads. If oily skin is your demon, fight it with a mix tomato and cucumber juice.
This brings us full circle and back to ponder Pablo Neruda and his Chilean ode to my favorite fruit. I’ve had three tomatoes sweetening in the sun on my windowsill for three days. Tonight they become the ruby red jewels of my salad. Thanks, Pablo.
Click here to read the poem in Spanish and in English.
Burum, Linda. The Little Red Fruit that Changed Indian Cooking, World Tomato Society
Smith, Peter. The Birth of Non-Alcoholic Ketchup
Wiggins, Jasmin. How was Ketchup Invented?
Michelle Bakeman has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia in Spanish and Latin American Studies. She is also a graduate of the Culinary Arts Institute of Louisiana. She has been a chef for twenty-two years, has owned and operated several restaurants, and has been a teacher for sixteen years. She moved to Cuenca in 2013.