Let’s catch up with ketchup. I’ve had a lifelong love affair with it. Splat, it goes on scrambled eggs, potatoes, hamburgers, hot dogs, sausages, bologna, hash, Spam and more. I’ve even been known to have a bread, butter and ketchup sandwich.
Is it supposed to be spelled “catsup” or “ketchup”? I recall as a young boy that the label on the bottle read “catsup,” and my mother jokingly referred to “cat soup.” When times were tough, she even made tomato soup out of it.
Never has such a ubiquitous and delicious product left me with such great material for investigation. While you struggle with political ponderings, I spend countless hours researching hundreds of pages about ketchup. For any readers who might have labored over the thought that this column has serious content, I apologize.
I took a Shakespeare course in college and learned that there were many spellings of the bard’s name. I learned more recently from Clyde Rideau Sr. that there are almost as many spellings of his surname. I have found at least 18 spelling variations for ketchup, including the two I’ve mentioned, plus others such as catchpuk, catsip, catchup and the list goes on.
From what I’ve read, the word ketchup could be derived from the name of an ancient Chinese pickled fish sauce called ke-tsiap. Doesn’t sound very appetizing to me. It didn’t even have tomatoes here until the early 1800s because people erroneously thought raw tomatoes were poison. The earliest published reference to catchup I could find was in 1690 with ketchup showing up in 1711. Jonathon Swift spoke of catsup in 1730. Some brands such as Hunt’s still use that spelling, but Heinz calls it ketchup and that seems to be used more often than any other spelling.
Henry J. Heinz founded his company in 1869 and began making tomato ketchup in 1876 in Pennsylvania. Quick! What is the Heinz logo? Can you draw it? You’ve seen it thousands of times. Answer: the keystone, as in the keystone state. Look at your container. Think of a stone arch you might have seen with the keystone at the top.
Our grandson Chad visited last week and asked if I knew how the phrase “57 varieties” got started in 1896. Simple. Heinz just liked the sound of it and grabbed it out of the air. It has never had any special numerical significance with the company, which produces many thousands of products.
Chad also mentioned that if you have trouble getting ketchup out of a Heinz glass bottle, you turn it upside down and tap on the “57” on the side of the neck with the middle and index fingers. It has some nebulous scientific explanation involving viscosity and “shearing force” that my “Little” brain fails to fathom. Now, he tells me, after I smashed the heel of my hand on the bottom for years or inserted a table knife in the neck to get the flow started.
It took me awhile to get used to the upside-down plastic ketchup bottles, but I like it when I can simply squeeze the container to cover my eggs. I also liked it when they made the opening in the neck much wider on the bottles. That also helped with the flow.
How many cooks and connoisseurs can tell me of the ingredients without looking at the label? For most ketchup, it’s tomato (of course), along with vinegar, sweetener, onion, salt, cloves, other spices and cinnamon (yes, cinnamon). Some also include celery and other vegetables, thus the slight differences in taste.
Different things are added and subtracted by Heinz in various countries, such as India, where one variety excludes onion and garlic for cultural or religious reasons. Remember in 2000 when they made ketchup in various colors here in America? That didn’t last long.
Besides being delicious, is ketchup a valuable topic? On Valentine’s Day, Heinz was sold to Berkshire Hathaway and 3G Capital. The price: $23 billion. H. J. Heinz has an adage that stuck: “To do an uncommon thing commonly well brings success.”
Pour it on liberally, and hand me my fork, please.
Have a great ketchup/catsup breakfast and please, drive carefully.
Gordie Little was for many years a well-known radio personality in the North Country and now hosts the “Our Little Corner” television program for Home Town Cable. Anyone with comments for him may send them to the newspaper or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.