We mentioned Ketchup on the 158 Main Facebook page, earlier today. As a condiment that truly marks the history of the culinary arts, it deserves further attention.
Believe it or not, until the mid-nineteenth century, Americans believed tomatoes were poisonous. If consumed at all, they were previously boiled for hours. In truth, the stem and leaves of the tomato contain alkaloids that can be toxic when ingested. However, ripe tomatoes contain none of these toxins.
“Of the tomato …, I know very little. It is chiefly employed as a sauce or condiment. No one, it is believed, regards it as very nutritious; and it belongs… to a family of plants, some of the individuals of which are extremely poisonous,” said American educator and physician William Andrus Alcott in 1846.
American writer and humorist Lewis Grizzard, born exactly 100 years later, had an entirely different and significantly more accurate perception of the tomato. Indeed, he was not joking when he said, “It’s difficult to think anything but pleasant thoughts while eating a homegrown tomato.”
It is the acidity of the tomato that earned it its early bad repute. Interestingly, this same acidity makes it the easiest fruit to preserve and the tomato is the most preserved fruit by home canning. Ketchup, of course, is a form of preserved tomato.
The first known version of ketchup dates back to late 17th century China and did not contain tomato sauce. Its main ingredients were pickled fish and spices. We do owe the name “ketchup” to this original condiment as one of its meaning is “fish in brine.” Ketchup was subsequently brought to other regions of Asia and the world by traveling merchants and explorers.
British explorers visiting Asia brought ketchup back to Great Britain in the early 1800′. This is around the time when the first known recorded variation using tomato sauce was published. Here it is, adapted from a Wikipedia article that appears to be well researched and documented.
100 ripe tomatoes, picked on a dry day
Squeeze the tomatoes with your hands till reduced to a pulp. Put half a pound of fine salt to one hundred tomatoes. Boil for two hours, stirring occasionally to prevent burning. While still hot, press the tomatoes through a fine sieve with a silver spoon until only the skin remains in the sieve. Add the remaining ingredients to the tomato purée, to taste. Boil again, over a slow fire until quite thick, stirring constantly. Allow to cool before bottling. Yield: 5 bottles. Will keep up to three years.
Later, a ketchup recipe published in the 1824 edition of The Virginia Housewife, a popular cookbook at the time, is said to have been submitted by Mary Randolph, a cousin of Thomas Jefferson.
Today, we know the great nutritional value of tomatoes, but there is truly something outstanding about tomato sauce. Many culinary experts agree that we can get the most benefits from concentrated tomato product. The heating process used in making tomato sauce and paste releases lycopene, a powerful antioxidant. Do we need to know this in order to enjoy a good tomato or the irresistible flavor of home fries dipped in ketchup? No, and maybe we know it by instinct. There is always that possibility.
We must conclude with the words of food author Laurie Colwin (Home Cooking, 1988): “A world without tomatoes is like a string quartet without violins.”
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