Pantry Staple

Why We Should Be Celebrating Ketchup This Fourth of July

The ubiquitous and quintessential American condiment has a long history that goes back centuries and around the world.

As we gather together this Independence Day to observe the birth of the United States and to scarf down inordinate amounts of burgers, hot dogs, and potato salad, let us take a moment to raise a bottle of ketchup in thanks and proudly toast it as the quintessential American condiment.

No, it doesn’t generate the biggest sales figures as far as condiments go; that honor goes to mayonnaise. But ketchup, which still brought in a hefty $843 million last year despite its modest cost, is the one we reach for most often. As Bobby Flay, celebrity chef and the guy behind Bobby’s Burger Palace, says: “Ketchup is important to the American table.”

In fact, 92 percent of U.S. households keep a bottle somewhere in their cupboard or fridge, according to Darren Seiffer, food and beverage analyst at the NPD Group—and it doesn’t just sit there gathering dust, like some jar of floral-scented chutney. A survey by Mintel, a marketing-research firm in Chicago, found that almost half of all Americans consume ketchup weekly.

Statistics aside, it’s the story behind and stuff inside ketchup that make it so appropriate for our nation’s birthday. The ketchup we know and love today—a magical blend of tomatoes, vinegar, sweetener, and spices— is the happy result of geographic circumstances, a hodgepodge of cultural tastes and ideas spanning multiple continents, resourcefulness, innovation and the collective human desire for a tasty meal.

Take the word itself: ketchup. Sounds vaguely German or Nordic, right? But no, it’s Chinese, like the word bok choy. Originally k^oe-chiap or k^e-tsiap in the Hokkien dialect, it referred to a fermented-fish sauce. As Dan Jurafsky, professor and chair of the linguistics department at Stanford University and author of The Language of Food, explains, the condiment was probably originally created by folks living in Vietnam and Cambodia. From the 14th through the 18th centuries, Hokkienese or Cantonese traders, impressed with the concoction, would bring it back to China as well as bring it to other destinations in Southeast Asia, including Indonesia and the Philippines.

Soon enough, the Chinese began riffing on the recipe, swapping out fermented fish for fermented soybean, an ingredient that had been cultivated in the country for more than 2,000 years, says Jurafsky. Sometime in the 1600s, English merchants got their hands on the fermented-fish sauce and also took it home. Their countrymen and women, in turn, made their own edits using ingredients that fit with local tastes, such as mushrooms, anchovies, and walnut; then tossing in spices like nutmeg, cloves, and mace.

English colonists, in turn, introduced these recipes to the New World and by 1740, dictionaries defined “ketchup” or “catsup” as a kind of preserved sauce made with umami-rich ingredients, not just an Asian fish sauce.

Still, one key ingredient remained absent in ketchup: tomato. Native to South America and later domesticated in Central America, the plant was unknown in Europe until Spanish soldiers happened upon it during their conquest of Mexico, launched in 1519. They subsequently introduced the curious-looking fruit to the Caribbean, Philippines (from where it spread throughout Asia), and Europe, where it became popular in climates conducive to tomato-growing, such as Italy and Spain, notes Andrew F. Smith, author of The Tomato in America.

The fruit was re-introduced by Spanish colonists to the New World, particularly in the Carolinas, where it was grown as early as the mid-1700s. Consumption gradually edged northward along the Mississippi River and Atlantic coast, says Smith, but it didn’t really catch on nationally until later, in the 19th century, when immigrants from tomato-eating European countries as well as tomato-savvy trades people began settling in American cities.

Enter the Tomato

James Mease, a widely known American physician and horticulturalist (whose dad, by the way, fought in the Revolutionary War), published the first tomato ketchup recipe in 1812. It created a thick consistency, thanks to the tomato pulp that wasn’t strained out, and it was blended with brandy instead of vinegar and was light on seasoning.

Of course, American home cooks and, later, commercial manufacturers couldn’t help but tinker with the recipe—that’s how it goes with ketchup. People introduced new ingredients as opportunities presented themselves over the ensuing decades. For instance, sugar became part of the recipe after the Civil War when the sweetener became relatively affordable.

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But the tomato somehow managed to maintain its central role in the sauce. In 1829, Lydia Maria Child, who later became an outspoken abolitionist and women’s rights activist, published The Frugal Housewife: Dedicated to those who are not ashamed of Economy. (No, she’s not related to Julia Child.) Later called The American Frugal Housewife (to avoid confusion with an English book of the same name), it noted that “the best sort of catsup is made from tomatoes” and a cup of it is “very excellent” in a pot of fish chowder made for a family of four or five.

It turns out, ketchup was indeed the perfect vehicle for consuming tomatoes, says Smith, who also wrote Pure Ketchup: A History of America’s National Condiment. The sauce brilliantly takes an ingredient that would spoil in a short amount of time and preserves it for a very long time. “They had to find a way to get rid of them,” says Smith. And that’s not to mention that tomatoes, which grow like gangbusters in the summer, but not so much the rest of the year, were a challenge to manage for early farmers.

By the turn of the 19th century, according to Smith, a condiment lover could choose from 94 commercial brands of ketchup available in the smallish state of Connecticut alone. Pittsburgh-based Heinz, which introduced its ketchup in 1871, ultimately distinguished itself by creating a recipe that eliminated the need for the toxic industrial preservatives used back in the day and by packaging its product in a distinctive glass bottle. The brand’s formula has changed since then, but its current classic variety is essentially the standard for what ketchup should taste like. Today, it’s the top tomato ketchup in the world, selling five times more ketchup than its nearest rival, says Kara Nielsen, sales and engagement manager at Innova Market Insights, a food and marketing consultancy.

Well, Hello, Hamburger

Call it serendipity or fate, but tomato ketchup turned out to be the perfect topping for the hamburger, which, according to Smith, had become an American classic by the 1890s. “Burgers are typically very high in fat—the good ones are anyway,” says Barb Stuckey, author of Taste: Surprising Stories and Science About Why Food Tastes Good, and president of Mattson, a food and beverage design and development firm. “Ketchup brings a high level of acid—that zing—that cuts through fatty foods nicely and complements it.”

What’s more, notes Al Banisch, the company’s executive vice president of new products strategy (who also worked at Heinz for 12 years), there’s a nice temperature contrast: sizzling-hot patty meets fridge-cool ketchup—the savory version of a just-baked brownie topped with whipped cream. And let’s not forget ketchup’s visual asset: “Ketchup brings that burger to life,” says Stuckey.

Thanks to our obsession with artisan and local foods, restaurateurs and entrepreneurs have, naturally, created their own small-batch varieties of ketchup. By Chloe, which serves up Instagrammable vegan fare in locations across the nation, introduced a beet ketchup that customers actually enjoy. “I don’t think it would have been widely accepted 15 years ago,” says the trendy chain’s corporate executive chef Manuel Trevino. “People are now more educated about food. They almost expect cool condiments when they come to a restaurant like ours.”

And with our unrelenting suspicion of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), artificial ingredients, and salt, new and established companies have seized the opportunity to offer alternative formulations. Both Heinz and Hunt’s now sell versions that swap out HFCS for sugar, as well as eliminate salt altogether. French’s ketchup uses sugar, and not HFCS, in its standard bottling and is non-GMO-certified. Sir Kensington’s, which was just bought by Unilever, uses raw sugar as an ingredient and downplays its sweetness as part of its overall flavor. In the U.K., mayo king Hellmann’s even delivers a ketchup sweetened with honey.

And that’s not to mention all the new styles of ketchup that call for sriracha, hot sauce, and even bacon. But these new versions shouldn’t be a big surprise. After all, home cooks have been tinkering with the recipe for centuries—making ketchup a medium still ripe for opportunity and discovery.