Like many Americans, I grew up on ketchup. I smeared it on eggs, puddled it next to potatoes and glazed frozen chicken patties with the stuff.
But as I crossed over to adulthood, I got a sense that requesting ketchup at restaurants suggested something about me beyond my preferred sauce. I understood that, unlike worldlier condiments such as Sriracha, ketchup is not sophisticated — and neither are those who love it. I didn’t want to broadcast my blue-collar roots every time I ordered fries. I mean, frites. I branched out into aioli, flirted with malt vinegar and generally learned to live without my ketchup.
But despite its down-market reputation, ketchup is ubiquitous. And it has been for a very long time, certainly since Heinz patented its first bottle in 1882.
Scholars and food historians contest the exact origin of ketchup. Eighteenth-century condiments with names such as kecap (Indonesia) and ke-tsiap (China) suggest that the earliest ketchups were concocted in Asia. From there the sauce traveled to Europe before evolving into its current form in America.
The earliest uses of the word describe something we wouldn’t recognize today as ketchup. Common early versions were made with fermented mushrooms or walnuts and their pickling liquid, along with a slew of spices. Oyster, liver and lobster were other main ingredients. Pungent, dark and thin, the first ketchups were decidedly not sweet. Early recipes were created with the goal of a long shelf life. Some recipes had titles such as “Ketchup to Keep 20 Years.”
American food companies standardized the iconic condiment, which is in almost every refrigerator across the land today. They, too, were driven by the goal of a long-lasting product. That’s how ketchup got so sweet and thick. Sugar is a natural preservative.
By the 1890s, the New York Tribune declared tomato ketchup the national condiment of the United States. Food writers of the time described it as an “incomparable condiment” and “the sauce of sauces,” according to food historian Andrew F. Smith’s book “Pure Ketchup.”
But it wasn’t the sauce’s storied history that revived my long-dormant love. It was my 4-year-old niece. She doesn’t know that ketchup isn’t cool. During one visit this year, we ate tater tots and ketchup together, her glee unbridled, the reapplications of ketchup to her plate and mine numerous.
When I got home, I bought frozen tater tots and ketchup. So what if it’s lowbrow? It reminds me of my niece, I thought. Savoring the flavors and memories of shared meals matters more to me than proving my refined palate. It wasn’t long before I emptied the bottle, finding new ways to use it up.
A longtime favorite restaurant dish of mine, the deep-fried sweet and spicy Cauliflower 65, often includes ketchup. I ate this dish dozens of times without realizing the tomato-based condiment played a central role in its seasoning. Usually described as Indian-Chinese fusion, it’s the kind of Americanized melting-pot dish whose origins and “authentic” recipe are unclear. So I used a recipe from the “V Street” cookbook by Richard Landau and Kate Jacoby as my starting point.
Ketchup is often the key ingredient in another classic sauce that is out of style: mayonnaise-based Russian dressing. Spicier than its sibling, Thousand Island, thanks to the addition of sinus-tingling horseradish, Russian dressing can be made well without any mayonnaise (I sub tofu for the mayo), but you can’t get precisely the right tang for a Reuben sandwich without a healthy dose of the red stuff.
A recent dinner I attended featured a group of chefs, each cooking a dish to represent his or her heritage. Chef Andrew Wood, known for his obsessive local sourcing at Russet in Philadelphia, brushed his buttery, ketchup-forward sauce on the chicken he was grilling that night. His dish paid tribute to the summer barbecues his family shared when he was growing up. Most good recipes for American barbecue sauce are little more than gussied-up ketchup, and Wood’s vintage sauce recipe comes straight off the Heinz labels of the late 1970s. When I asked him, surprised, about the Heinz, he said, “You can’t make this without it.”
Barbecue sauce is no prestige recipe. But I dare you not to like it mixed with shredded chicken and piled on a potato roll with pickles, or brushed on chicken during its last moments roasting or on the grill. It also would be welcome alongside ribs or pulled pork or added to your turkey burger.
Although ketchup is an indispensable ingredient for a number of classic dishes, it shouldn’t need to hide in a recipe to be celebrated. If ketchup were introduced today, we would hail it as the next “it” condiment. It’s time to cook with it and slather it on potatoes, eggs, onion rings, meatloaf or wherever you like best. And do it proudly.