Ketchup, Catsup, Ketsup: What’s in a Condiment?

Per Merriam-Webster online, Ketchup is a seasoned pureed condiment usually made from tomatoes. they also have it spelled as “Catchup” and “Catsup”, which is unusual as I’ve never seen the first spelling before. Now, this definition was accessed on 3/31/2017 (yes, TODAY). Compare it to the 1913 definition of Ketchup per Webster: Catsup is a table sauce made from mushrooms, tomatoes, walnuts, etc. What a difference 104 years makes in a definition of a food item! Of course, many may think me odd to devote an entire blog post to a condiment, but I was inspired by a good friend of mine, Debbie, who is a Civil War re-enactor and how she demonstrated a peach “ketchup” the previous year. Of course, this lead to a discussion on when exactly was Ketchup what we would consider ketchup. Though, I do find the idea of a peach sauce intriguing and do think even Austen would have enjoyed it on fish, chicken, and perhaps ham? So, this led to my (brief) look at ketchup because during my research into foods of Austen’s time (and Georgian life as well), many writers will state that “yes, ketchup existed” but never explain what that implies. Are they implying the red sweet and tangy sauce that I love to dip fries (or Chips for my Across-the-Pond readers) into? The condiment that is a must for grilling burgers and tater tots? Never hot dogs please (sorry, it’s a Chicago thing!). But that’s been one of the frustrating aspects of doing research into Austen’s time-the utter fallacy of writers assuming that because a word is being used back then, it must mean the same exact thing. Again, research here was clearly lacking. And I am not talking about little unknown books either. I am talking about the major ones librarians steer writers towards because they are aimed for us: books such as “What Charles Dickens Ate and Jane Austen Knew” by Daniel Pool or “The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England from 1811-1901” by Kristene Hughes. Both books, while interesting reads and chock full of information that can be useful, are also full of misinformation and generalities that are skewed more towards bad romance fiction than historical accuracy. I often wonder how either of those books even got published with the amount of misinformation and mistakes that they contain. Mistakes that a few hours of research was I able to dispel quite easily with very little effort. I have always believed that once I get one or two of my books published, I would love to publish some of my research for people (some, not all) just so there would be a decently researched book on Regency times available for people that has facts and a very long bibliography so others can go even further. But back to Ketchup.

Historically, ketchup seems to trace it’s origins to Asia and the Middle East. Some linguists state that it’s from a Chinese word for a concotion of pickled fish and spices (Koe-chiap or Ke-chiap) dating from the 17th Century. Others say it may come from what we now call Malaysia and Singapore during the 18th Century (Kay-chap) for a similar spicy fish based sauce. There’s also strong evidence for it’s Middle Eastern roots as during the 17th Century, the term for pickling with vinegar was Kabecs, but called Caveach by the British ( Escaveche by the French and Escabeche by the Spanish and Portuguese). Also important to note that in the Dictionary of the Canting Crew (basically, a dictionary of Sailor Slang complied by an unknown person between 1690 and 1720) referred to Catsup and the description was that it was a dark sauce. It seems that it was also used as a catchall phrase because some accounts refer to soy sauce as ketchup (and vice versa). Which really makes it all confusing as to what exactly is the ketchup that they are referring to? Well, regardless of where the term came from, some kind of vinegar or pickling seems to be involved (thus, the tang that we all love), but no sweetness is involved. All seem to use spices and most use fish, which is quite unexpected. And the fish in question range from Salmon to anchovies to shellfish to fish in general.

The British, liking the sauce and wanting to put their own unique spin on it, started making ketchup, but with mushrooms (sorry tomatoes, you still got a bad rap at this point). From what I’ve read, the term “ketchup” from 1750 to 1850 could refer to any kind of dark sauce made of mushrooms. In fact, we here in the United States started referring to mushroom ketchup by the 1770s and it was being made and consumed by the likes of Jefferson and Washington.  Of course, some of these recipes also include walnuts (or just walnuts and no mushrooms). And if you think mushroom ketchup no longer exists, it still does, though not as popular as it’s tomato counterpart. The UK still has companies that manufacturer mushroom ketchup (Geo Watkins has been manufacturing Mushroom Ketchup since 1830 and still is) and I’ve found a few recipes for it on my own. Actually, it doesn’t sound that bad and might be a good condiment on some grilled chicken. But I’m digressing again!

Now, while tomato based ketchup didn’t take off in popularity until the late 19th Century, it did exist as early as 1812. How close was it to our modern version? Not very much at all. the earliest known recipe comes from James Mease and was inspired by his stay in Haiti. His recipe (apparently) includes tomatoes, spices, brandy, but no sugar or vinegar. I am unsure if it also includes fish or not, but I’ve not had the time to go through his entire online database of writings to see if the recipe is there or not (or if it’s just hearsay at this point). What we do know is the next oldest tomato based ketchup recipe was published in 1817 by Sandy Addison in “The Sugar House Book.” This recipe was said to have been invented circa 1801, but how can one verify this? What is interesting is that this concoction that not only included tomatoes, but anchovies as well. It really shows the roots to the Asian sauces if she’s using fish to flavor the sauce (thankfully no sugar). The next most influential recipe is Mary Randolph’s in “The Virginian Housewife” first published in 1824. Mary was also a cousin to Thomas Jefferson and used tomatoes in 40 of her recipes (tomatoes considered very deadly at the time). She’s credited with the first recipe that uses some sugar to sweeten the recipe and she also doesn’t use fish. So, in fact, we can say that the Randolph is probably the first true ketchup in terms of what we would consider ketchup. However, her version is still runny, not very thick and still very tangy.

We can thank Jonas Yerkes for being the first American to sell ketchup commercially (1837 was when he began). While ketchup was most likely sold locally by farmers to others in the area, Yerkes really took that concept and decided to make it a business. Making ketchup, by the sounds of it, was time consuming, hot, and tiring. Having someone else do it would have been ideal for most women at that time. That led to Heinz, which was formed in 1876 and figured that thin ketchup was the result of using unripe tomatoes. Unripe tomatoes have less pectin so the riper the tomato, the more pectin it has and the thicker the sauce will be. They are the ones who truly perfected the sweet-sour combination that we all recognize as “Ketchup.” Though, to be fair, Ketchup is called “Red Sauce” is Wales, Scotland, parts of the UK, South Africa, and some parts of Asia. But we can all agree that we love the stuff and really can’t imagine life without it.

Now, as for the spelling, “Catsup” I am afraid for years has been blamed on us Americans by the British to showcase our lack of understanding of the English Language. Au contraire! It seems the blame for this spelling lies within their own backyard and not with us Americans at all! For you see, in 1730, Jonathan Swift used the word “catsup” in his poem A Pangyric of the Dean in the Person of a Lady in the North : “And, for our home-bred British cheer,/ Botargo, catsup, and caviare. ” It’s a really long poem, very witty, a bit crude a times, but enjoyable as Swift was an excellent satirist.

So while my good friend Debbie was correct in that tomato based ketchup as we knew it didn’t exist until late 19th century, ketchup  did exist in it’s own way. And while I find the idea of consuming a mushroom ketchup or even a walnut one intriguing (and high on my list of probabilities), I still can’t stomach the concept of a tomato based one with anchovies. That one still finds me a bit queasy. So, I feel the important thing to be learned from all of this is while people who publish books imparting knowledge of a time long gone can be useful, they can also be very, very wrong. And also we should never take something as mundane and simple as that bottle or packet of ketchup for granted.


Works of James Mease:

Dictionary of Canting Crew:;idno=A39127.0001.001

Swift’s Poem:

Annie Bell Article:

Smith, Andrew (1996). Pure Ketchup: A History.

Website that sells British Sauces:

Mary Randolph Bio:

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