The old saying “As Maine goes, so goes the nation,” may have applied to politics, but never to ketchup. The historic novelist Kenneth Roberts abominated ketchup made with sugar, and he claimed his fellow Mainers shared his contempt. At least those who appreciated good Maine cooking did.
Roberts inherited his love of unsweetened ketchup from seafaring ancestors who learned about the condiment in its proper form during their travels to the West Indies.
Ketchup evolved into the sweet, tomato-y condiment we know today after the tomato itself gained popularity in the United States. But in rural, isolated parts of Maine, old-fashioned cooks stuck to their guns and made their own ketchup the way Roberts’ grandmother made it.
Roberts, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his historical fiction, begged his grandmother for her ketchup recipe. Eventually, he and his niece wrote a cookbook, Good Maine Food, in which a recipe for unsweetened ketchup appears.
Early American Ketchup
Ketchup actually wasn’t always made with tomatoes, nor was it invented by Americans. The Food History Timeline claims that it originated in Southeast Asia. Then colonists and traders brought ketchup back to Europe, and British cooks adapted their own recipes. They used mushrooms, walnuts, anchovies and oysters to make ketchup for use as a sauce on meat and fish or as an ingredient in gravies.
But all that happened before the tomato won wide acceptance in Europe and North America.
Tomatoes took a circuitous route from their native soil in South America to Europe and then to New England. The species originated in western South America and Central America. By the time the Spanish conquered Mexico, the Aztecs were using tomatoes in their cooking.
In the 1520s, the Spanish took tomatoes from Mexico to Europe, where they grew in popularity. Eventually they spread to Southeast Asia as Europeans began to establish colonies there.
Tomatoes caught on later in British North America, but how, exactly, is a mystery. The first known cultivation of tomatoes in the colonies happened in the Carolinas in the mid-18th century. Perhaps French Huguenots or British colonists brought tomato seeds with them from Europe. Merchant traders may have brought them from the West Indies. Or perhaps the Spanish started growing them in their colonies in Florida and Georgia, and the practice spread north.
Tomatoes, however, didn’t gain wide acceptance until after the Civil War. Before then, many people thought of tomatoes as poisonous, disgusting or unpleasant.
No recipes that use tomatoes appear in Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery, the first U.S. cookbook, published in Hartford in 1796. Tomato recipes started popping up in cookbooks around 1820, but then only sporadically.
The First Tomato Ketchups
A Philadelphia scientist named James Mease gets credit for inventing the first ketchup made with tomatoes in 1812. The recipe included pulp tomatoes, brandy and spices.
Recipes for homemade ketchup made without sugar began to proliferate. In The Virginia Housewife, published in 1824, author Mary Randolph (Thomas Jefferson’s cousin) advised putting a peck of tomatoes in the fire without water and boiling them for an hour. Then, she wrote, strain them twice and cook the liquid with onions, mace, salt and pepper. Boil it until it fills two bottles. “Make it in August,” she wrote.
Other ketchup recipes involved a similar level of drudgery. When commercial bottled ketchup appeared around 1830, home cooks gladly bought it. Ketchup, after all, was a sauce they didn’t have to make every time they cooked something.
The factories that churned out canned and bottled food for Union soldiers churned out ketchup after the Civil War, They promoted it as a sauce that stayed fresh for any length of time. In 1876, F & J Heinz introduced tomato ketchup and advertised its convenience. “Blessed relief for Mother and the other women in the household” went the ad.
Sugar began to creep into the bottled ketchup to counter the acidity of tomatoes. But sugar promoted fermentation and spoilage, so food companies began to add even more. Then they added vinegar to mask the cloying sweetness of ketchup made with sugar.
Food processors began using sodium benzoate to extend the shelf life of ketchup. A controversy then erupted over its safety as a food preservative, and benzoate lost. In 1906, the Pure Food Law banned the use of sodium benzoate in food.
But a husband-and-wife couple who worked for the USDA’s Bureau of Chemistry started looking for ways to make ketchup with a long shelf life but without preservatives. Karen and Avril Bitting tried hundreds of recipes, and concluded that sugar and vinegar prevent spoiling. They even wrote a pamphlet in 1909 about it, Experiments on the Spoilage of Tomato Ketchup.
Thus the Bittings sealed the fate of modern, commercial ketchup.
Kenneth Roberts Attacks Ketchup Made With Sugar
Kenneth Roberts, born in 1885 in Kennebunk, Maine, developed an addiction for his grandmother’s ketchup. “I became almost a ketchup drunkard; for when I couldn’t get it, I yearned for it,” he wrote in 1944.
…we could never get enough of it. We were allowed to have it on beans, fish cakes, and hash, since those dishes were acknowledged to be incomplete without them; but when we went so far as to demand it on bread, as we often did, we were peremptorily refused and had to go down in the cellar and steal it – which we also often did.
She made a savory ketchup without sugar, as did many Maine home cooks, wrote Roberts. And he railed against ketchup made with sugar.
Ketchup is an important adjunct to many Maine dishes, particularly in families whose manner of cooking comes down to them from seafaring ancestors. So far as I know, a sweetened ketchup in those families is regarded as an offense against God, and man, against nature and good taste. This antagonism to sweetened ketchup is traceable to the days when dozens of Maine sea captains from every Maine town were constantly sailing to Cuba and the West Indies for cargoes of molasses and rum, and to Spain for salt.
Recipe: Ketchup Made Without Sugar
Roberts begged his grandmother for the recipe, and in 1944 he included it in the cookbook he wrote with his niece. Here it is:
About one peck (2.3 gallons) of ripe tomatoes, cooked and strained. Use a large spoon to rub the cooked tomatoes through a sieve into a kettle to remove the seeds and heavy pulp. That should produce one gallon of liquid
One dozen cans of concentrated tomato juice.
Put the juice in a kettle on the stove. Bring almost to a boil.
Meanwhile dissolve the following in one pint of sharp vinegar:
6 tablespoons salt
4 tablespoons allspice
2 tablespoons mustard
1 tablespoon powdered cloves
1 teaspoon black pepper
¼ teaspoon red pepper.
Stir the vinegar mix into the hot tomato juice.
Then set the kettle over a slow fire and let it simmer until it thickens, constantly stirring to prevent the spices from settling on the bottom and burning.
How Long To Simmer
If made from concentrated tomato juice, an hour and a half.
If made from canned tomatoes, three or four hours.
When the kettle is removed from the fire, let the mixture stand until cold. Then stir and pour into small-necked bottles.
If a half inch of olive oil is poured into each bottle, and the bottle then corked, the ketchup will keep indefinitely in a cool place. It’s better if chilled before serving.
With thanks to: Epic Tomatoes by Craig LeHoullier, Carolyn’s Compositions, Love-Apples, Tomato Blight & a Maine Ketchup Recipe by Carolyn C. Holland, and Pure Ketchup: A History of America’s National Condiment, with Recipes By Andrew F. Smith.
Homemade ketchup By Rachel Tayse – homemade ketchup cannedUploaded by Mindmatrix, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26446114. This story was updated in 2022.