Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Great American Condiment

A few years ago, shortly after one of my favorite local restaurants opened, a customer became totally unglued when she learned that ketchup was not available with the steak and pommes frites she had ordered for dinner. Unable to endure ketchuplessness, she melted down like a cranky two year-old, letting everyone in the dining room know that her meal had been ruined beyond redemption and predicting the restaurant’s imminent demise. Fortunately for the rest of us, she turned out to be wrong.

Several years before that, a friend of a friend went with his new wife to Norway to meet some of the in-laws. In honor of the occasion, they served lutefisk, a Scandinavian specialty made from dried cod, soaked for days in water with lye, and then cooked until translucent. It must be said that lutefisk is an acquired taste, like many national or regional specialties (“Comin’ to the muskrat festival again this year, Earl?”), and my friend’s friend horrified his new in-laws by dousing it with ketchup.

What exactly is this quintessentially American condiment that makes it necessary for so many of us to enjoy our food, either at home or abroad? According to the 3rd edition of Sharon Tyler Herbst’s Food Lover’s Companion – a great little book that describes everything from absinthe to zungenwurst – ketchup is “a spicy pickled-fish condiment popular in 17th century China.” It was apparently brought to the U.K. by British seamen, where it evolved considerably. One popular version was mushroom catsup, described in Joe’s Book of Mushroom Cookery, by Jack Czarnecki:

“Mushroom catsup originated in English cookery, where layers of fresh mushrooms were salted and skimmed over a period of three days to a week. During this time the salt would extract the liquid from the mushrooms, which would be strained and seasoned. The resulting liquid would be cooked down to a syrupy extract, sealed, and sold as a condiment for meats or for a simple addition to sauces. It is found only rarely today, since this salting method is expensive, not to mention the fact that the catsup is very salty.”

In fact, while it is not readily available on most supermarket shelves, it is possible to obtain mushroom ketchup through specialty food suppliers even here in the U.S (in fact, it appears that Amazon will soon have it available on-line: you can request an e-mail notification from them when it is available). I have a bottle of it sitting on my shelf, “prepared from an original recipe by G. Watkins, Estab. 1830.” The back of the bottle gives a glowing testimonial:

“This rich traditional cooking sauce was the secret of success of many Victorian Cooks with Steak and Kidney Pies and Puddings, Roast Meats, Sauces and Soups.”

Indeed, ketchup recipes can include almost anything. In his book, Pure Ketchup: A History of America’s National Condiment, Andrew Smith includes recipes for 50 different ketchups from the 18th to the 20th century, with versions made from anchovies, beer, cranberries, cucumbers, elderberries, grapes, lemons, liver, lobster, oysters, peaches, peppers, plums, raspberries, squash, walnuts, and whortleberries. Like mushroom catsup, most of these varieties aren’t readily available on supermarket shelves today, either.

According to the FDA’s official definition, ketchup is made with tomatoes. Indeed, tomato ketchup is popular enough that in 1981, the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed elevating its status from a condiment to a vegetable. Supposedly, this was to help school districts meet the costs of federally mandated lunch programs, but public outrage led them to abandon the idea. Interestingly, this attempt at reclassification mirrors an earlier, successful one: the tomato itself isn’t even a vegetable, botanically speaking (it’s actually a fruit), although it was classified as a vegetable for trade purposes by the U.S. Government in 1893. While Shakespeare may have argued that “a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet,” it is clear that he didn’t have a firm grasp of the economic or political implications of classification and nomenclature.

In the end, there is some evidence that ketchup may be on its way out as the national condiment. In his book, Are You Really Going to Eat That?, food writer Rob Walsh describes the following incident at a roadside eatery in Seabrook, Texas. A group of diners at a nearby table were incensed by the lack of ranch dressing for their onion rings. The waitress attempted to explain that the restaurant didn’t have any salad dressings because they didn’t serve any salads, but the diners were still miffed. As Walsh observed,

“Ranch dressing has nothing to do with salad in Texas. Several Texas chefs have told me they’ve been astonished by the rise in the requests for ranch dressing in the last ten years. It’s now used as a dip and a sauce more often than as a salad topping. (In West Texas, some restaurant patrons seem to regard it as a beverage.) I suspect it long ago surpassed ketchup and salsa as the number-one condiment in the state. For a major segment of the dining public, onion rings without ranch dressing are unthinkable – so are pizza, biscuits, and canned peaches.”

Walsh’s unhappy dining companions didn’t give up, repeating their request for ranch dressing until the waitress suggested they go buy a bottle at a convenience store.

Her suggestion gave me an idea. Motivated by the question of what sort of ketchup might be appropriate with steak and pommes frites, I conducted an Internet search. Among my finds was an article on a food fair in Paris that featured – along with chocolate foie gras and a kiwi liqueur – a thick blue ketchup made with black currants based on an 18th century recipe. The developers noted that it tastes somewhat like tomato ketchup because of the cinnamon and other spices they include. One customer thought it would go well with duck. I kept looking.
Ultimately, I found a suitable product sold by French Country Home ( ), a company specializing in “French products, French hand-crafted items, and gourmet foods from the south of France,” who offer “Authentic 16th Century Catsup:”

“Our artisanal producer has recreated a unique old-fashioned catsup based on a 16th century recipe and is similar to what you may find today in Cajun or north African kitchens. This authentic catsup (NOT ketchup!) is somewhat sweet and subtly spicy. It’s a delicious sauce on its own and also ideal as a base for barbecue and pasta sauces or meat or seafood marinades. Packaged in an old-fashioned 8.8 oz (250 ml) wax-sealed, corked bottle.”

While it is probably not available in most convenience stores (indeed, the website indicates that the company’s office is temporarily closed for renovations), it seems perfect for a French restaurant.

All that remains is the obvious question: “You want frites with that?”

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