Did George Washington use Ketchup?

O.k., so it may be an absurd question. The answer, however, is probably…but it may not be what you think.

When I hear the word “KETCHUP,” the tangy tomato condiment immediately blots across the canvas my mind like a crimson Rorschach test. Ketchup is a necessary component of the backyard cookout. It’s the not-so-secret ingredient to many a blue-ribbon meatloafs. There’s a bottle of it sitting on the tables of most every diner, separating the salt and pepper shakers like misbehaving children.

But when you’re in Chicago, don’t ask for ketchup on your hot dog, or you’ll be branded a tourist. Um…the fanny pack may give you away too.

One of my all-time favorite Sunday-morning comics was by the master cartoonist, Gary Larsen. It featured a committee of ruminating vultures huddling over their rather ripe roadkill repast, while two of them reminisce the virtues of…(you remember this one too?)…ketchup.

Believe it or not, ketchup has been around for hundreds of years; that’s just about as long as the debate that has raged over whether the word is spelled “C-A-T-C-H-U-P,” C-A-T-S-I-P,” or “K-E-T-C-H-U-P.”  The Oxford English Dictionary declares the winner: “Ketchup” is apparently the more commonly used of the three, so I’ll stick with that name for now.

But wait, I thought people long ago believed tomatoes were poisonous!

Many did, and for good reason. The tomato belongs to the nightshade family. And with the tag “nightshade,” the tomato is looking pretty evil. Other people — some apparently with a death wish, knew better.

It is believed that the great Spanish explorer, Hernan Cortes, may have been the first to introduce the “love apple” to Europe upon his return from South America. By the early 1500s, tomatoes became a staple in Spanish and Italian diets. By 1600, many British cooks decided it was time for the Spaniards and Italians to share in the fun. By the mid-18th century, tomatoes were fairly common English fare, typically used in soups and as garnishes or sauces for meats.

In the book Every Man His Own Gardener, by John Abercrombie and Thomas Mawe, 1767,  it reads, “[Tomatoes] in some families, are much used in soups, and are also often used to pickle, both when they are green, and when they are ripe.”

There are numerous references and recipes for sauces made from tomatoes. Some of these recipes included garlic and spices, as well as vinegar — typical ingredients in modern-day tomato ketchup. Here’s a recipe from the Culina famulatrix medicinæ: or, Receipts in modern cookery,  by Alexander Hunter, published in 1810:

And here’s another recipe from 1817:

But who came up with the word “Ketchup”?

Who knows? There’s much debate over the origin of this word. Some say it’s a variant of a Chinese word for fish sauce. Others say it is a Malay word for the same.

We know from references and recipes that by the mid 1700s, “Ketchup” was a culinary term spoken frequently in English kitchens. The condiment, however, associated with it was not a tomato sauce, but rather a flavorful concoction, sometimes fermented, sometimes not, based on either anchovies or shellfish,  walnuts, or mushrooms. Martha Washington included a recipe in her Booke of Cookery for pickled oysters, a fermented variant of ketchup.

You can still find a direct descendant of 18th century ketchup either in your refrigerator, or if not there, on a shelf at your local grocer: it’s called Worcestershire sauce (that’s pronouced “wuus-ter-sher” for those who, like me, have difficulty slurring the word enough). The bottle in my refrigerator has been there since, well, maybe even the 18th century!

18th Century Ketchup Recipes

If you’re an 18th century reenactor, historian, or foodie and you still crave your red stuff, you’re pretty safe to use a recipe like those above. Tomatoes will kill neither you nor generally your authenticity, unless, of course, you’re deathly allergic to them. Just don’t call it ketchup during the event; instead, call it tomato sauce. But if you want that authentic “ketchup experience,” and you’re up to making your own, there are many recipes found in the old cookbooks. Here are a couple:

Ok, those are a bit time- and labor-intensive. Here’s an authentic non-fermented recipe for mushroom ketchup that is quite tasty! We demonstrated this recipe in our video from our Cooking with Jas. Townsend & Son video series.

And here’s the written recipe:

18th Century Mushroom Ketchup

2lbs fresh mushrooms, wiped clean and broken or cut into small pieces.
2T Kosher or Sea Salt
2 -3 Bay Leaves
1 Large Onion, chopped
Zest of 1 Lemon
1T Grated Horseradish
1/4t Ground Clove
1/2t Ground Allspice
Pinch of Cayenne
1/2c Cider Vinegar

Combine the mushrooms, salt, and bay leaves in a non-metallic pot or bowl. Cover and let set overnight.

Transfer mushroom mixture to a cooking pot and add the remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce heat to low to simmer the mixture for 15 minutes. (Optional: you could simmer the mixture longer, stirring all the while, to reduce the liquid to about half for a more concentrated flavor.)

Remove from the heat and allow to cool. Strain out all the solids through a piece of cloth, squeezing or wringing the cloth to remove as much liquid as possible.

Bottle and cork.

PLEASE NOTE! Don’t throw away the wrung-out mushroom mixture! Spread it out on a baking sheet and dry it thoroughly in a 200-degree (F) oven. Remove the mushrooms when they are completely dry and hard. This can be ground into a powder and stored in a tin for seasoning or left in its original form to be added to soups and stews. This mushroom seasoning is absolutely delicious!

So when did Ketchup turn red?

While there may be earlier recipes for a tomato-based ketchup, the earliest we found was in the Apicius Redivivus: Or, The Cook’s Oracle, by William Kitchiner from 1817. This is an interesting book in that it, like the aforementioned book by Charlotte Mason, also includes a good number of ketchup recipes, including “White Catsup” made with white wine vinegar and anchovies, cucumber ketchup, a sweet orange and brandy flavored ketchup for puddings, “Cockle and Muscle” ketchup, oyster ketchup, walnut ketchup, as well as mushroom ketchup. But it’s the “Tomata Catsup” that captures my attention.

This recipe seems to be a marriage of a typical tomato sauce recipe with a typical fish-based ketchup recipe.

By the mid 1800’s numerous recipes were written for tomato ketchup, many of which had dropped the fermented sea creatures from the list of ingredients. References, however, still are found from as late as the 1870’s  (Check this link) which refer to the making of mushroom ketchup. So tomato ketchup hadn’t entirely beaten out the competition yet.

Our association of the word “ketchup” to that red blot running down our shirts, is likely the result of some fancy promotion and distribution footwork by the all-familiar Heinz family, who got their start in 1876. By the turn of the 20th century they had made a name for themselves and had given the folks of Worcester a run for their money. It’s also very likely that they changed forever the common perception of what ketchup was. By the early 1900s, they were shipping every year 12 million of those familiar glass bottles to kitchens around the world and to local diners like the one near you.

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31 Responses to Did George Washington use Ketchup?

  1. Dannie O says:

    What a wonderful taste of history! One question: To refrigerate or not to refrigerate? Or, please tell me about the “life span” of the mushroom ketchup, and the mushroom seasoning. Did the bottle sit on the table for liberal usage by dining guests or was it used like an ingredient in the kitchen? Well, I guess that sorta became more than one question but they are related.

    • Kevin Carter says:

      Hi Dannie. As I’m sure you’ve figured, these recipes were intended for storage at room temperatures, as refrigeration was not readily available except during winter months. Some of the original recipes included claims such as “will keep all year.” I saw one ketchup recipe that had as its title the boast, “a ketchup good for 30 years.” Obviously, I can neither attest to those claims, nor guarantee similar results. I can say (again, without implying any guarantee of results) that I made a batch of the mushroom ketchup mentioned in this post about 10 to 11 months ago and it has been aging in a bottle on my kitchen counter ever since. I used some of it recently without ill effect and it was quite delicious. The salt content is apparently high enough that bacterial growth is inhibited. Preservation would be improved by simmering the ketchup until it is reduced, thus increasing the salt concentration. Such reduction would also concentrate the flavor. The alcohol content in the fermented versions would also serve as preservative. Of course, if you try this mushroom ketchup recipe, you may discover the need for preservation is a moot point. As an aside, I intend to try some of the other recipes included in the original texts linked in this post. I suspect they are equally yet distinctly delicious.

  2. KBL~RalNC says:

    I am thoroughly enjoying your posts & videos. I look forward to trying many if not all of these soon. The Mushroom Ketchup looks great!

    Will you be doing posts with written directions accompanying your videos on the Ovens? I like watching, but it’s nice to have the written version as backup to refer to.

    Thanks again for putting these together!

  3. Kevin Carter says:

    Thank you for your kind words! The mushroom ketchup really is tasty, as is the powdered mushroom…WOW! We’ve had a number of people ask for instructions on building an earthen oven, so those posts will be coming sometime in the near future. In the meantime, there is an excellent resource on building ovens by Kiko Denzer: http://jas-townsend.com/product_info.php?products_id=1212

  4. jeff says:

    The closest thing (for me) to ketchup, is ‘Old Fashioned Chili Sauce”. It tastes the same, but is not pureed. My grandmother born in 1906) had a recipe from her mother which I use now. It tastes very similar to today’s Heinz, but without all the modifiers, starch, HFCS, and artificial flavorings…

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  6. This is the best ketchup. It sits on our dining room table within arms reach! Thank you so much it was a lot of fun to make also.

  7. Such a wonderful post–love the detail, the links, everything about it. I’m sharing this!

  8. Doc Mannheim says:

    I absolutely love the mushroom ketchup!!! So much that I’m already on my second batch, as I’ve used up my first. It is a wonderful addition to most every meal I eat, I even take it with me to restaurants for use there. Plus it gives me a chance to give a history lesson as well!

  9. molly says:

    What’s the source for your Mushroom Ketchup recipe? (book title, author) Or is it “mo-dern”?

    • Kevin Carter says:

      Hi Molly,

      We came across this recipe over a year ago in preparation for a video on the topic of mushroom ketchup. I have been searching for the better part of the afternoon for the original recipe. I have read through over a dozen recipes for the condiment. Some of them used this rather abbreviated over-night preparation technique, others called for the mushrooms to be allowed to macerate for several days before straining and reducing the liquor. Others, still, called for the liquid to be fermented. Similarly, I have also found each of the ingredients listed in this recipe listed in other recipes. It is entirely possible that the recipe we have presented is a conglomerate of multiple period recipes. Until I can place a finger on the original recipe that matches both technique and ingredients, I will have to settle with that possibility.

      Below is what I found today. The two common ingredients between all of these recipes are of course mushrooms and salt.

      Eliza Smith’s recipe in “The Compleat Housewife,” (1758, pg. 86), uses the over-night abbreviate technique, but calls for seasoning with mace, cloves, bay, black pepper, salt, onions, vinegar, and a little butter (butter???).

      “The London Art of Cookery,” by John Farley (1811, pg. 156), macerates the mushrooms for four days, then uses port wine, allspice, cloves, mace, pepper, and cayenne.

      “Professed Cookery” by Ann Cook (1755, pg. 164) goes through the process of pickling mushrooms, and the juice drawn off the mushrooms during that process is combined with “beef brine” mace, nutmeg, cloves, and pepper.

      Hannah Glasse (the object of Ann Cook’s considerable scorn), in “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy” (1774, pp. 308, 309) presents two variations: abbreviated techniques, one seasoned with ginger, black pepper, mace, and clove; the other combined with stale beer and seasoned with horseradish, bay, white pepper, black pepper, onion, cloves, mace, nutmeg, allspice, and ginger.

      “The Practice of Cookery, Pastry, Pickling, and Preserving,” Mrs. Frazer (1791, pg. 227) uses an abbreviated preparation, but suggests boiling it with egg white in order to clarify it, and seasoning it with black pepper, allspice, cayenne, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger.

      Maria Rundell, in “A New System of Domestic Cookery” (1814, pg 204) presents two recipes: the first allows the mushrooms to macerate for 12 days. It is then seasoned with allspice, black pepper, mace, ginger, clove, and mustard seed. The second recipe is seasoned with shallots, garlic, black pepper, ginger, mace, cloves, bay, and horseradish.

      Sarah Martin, in “The New Experienced English Housekeeper” (1795, pg. 133), suggests a maceration of 4 days, seasoned with garlic, ginger, black pepper, cloves, and bay.

      Elizabeth Raffald, in “The Experienced English Housekeeper” (1769, pg. 318) suggests macerating the mushrooms for 3 days, then baking them, and seasoning them with cloves, allspice, black pepper, and ginger.

      “The Universal Cook,” by Francis Collingwood (1806, pg. 278) suggests a maceration of 5 to 6 days with mace, allspice, and cloves, then baking them, then bottling the juice with red wine and more mace and ginger.

      There are more recipes. “Cookery and Pastry” by MacIver (pg. 249), The English Art of Cookery (pg. 596), “The New Practice of Cookery, Pastry, Baking, and Preserving” by Hudson (pg.79), The Accomplished Housekeeper and Universal Cook (pg. 224).

      I believe all of these books can be found in Google Books. Most are free e-books. While I wish I could identify the single source for the recipe presented, but in the meatime, I hope this information remains helpful to you. Thanks for your inquiry.

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  11. Pingback: Mushroom Ketchup | Revolutionary Pie

  12. JC says:

    several years ago I made tomato sauce with the long ferment process. Recipe from the book How to Preserve Food without Canning or Freezing, Chelsea Green. The tomatoes sat in their salt brine for 8 days till the bubble/fermenting was done. Straining, then bottling. Cheesecloth was the lid so not to create an explosion. Needless to say I was leery of trying this tomato sauce. Once I finally gave in and did it, a year later, I was amazed I did not die, hah! then pleasantly surprised how fabulous the flavor. Oh & btw, it is topped off with olive oil & each time you take from it, you add more to top off. Mostly to keep critters from getting in & to keep mold from growing that is harmless, but to many, gross. I have done so many of the old time ways of preserving & will not go back to canning or freezing. It is so simple to preserve the old way. If it were not safe, then we surely would not be here to talk about it!

  13. Pingback: The ketchup tree | ideas that taste good

  14. writingfromjoy says:

    I’d like to use make a fermented mushroom ketchup based on your recipe. I think if I use raw apple cider vinegar, skip the boiling and instead leave it on the counter for a few days, that should be enough time to extract the flavors. Have you tried a fermented ketchup?

    • Kevin Carter says:

      I have not tried fermented ketchup. In the recipe we demonstrated, the boiling served a couple of purposes: one was to extract and concentrate the flavors, the other (though this would not have been understood in the day) was to pasteurize the ingredients.

      Hmmm…Add this to my list of things to research. Do you have period (or modern) recipes for a fermented version?

  15. JC says:

    I do have a fermented version: canned tomato paste 3 cups, or homemade
    1/4 cup whey, 1 TBSP sea salt, 1/2 cup maple syrup
    3 cloves garlic, mashed, 1/2 cup fish sauce(homemade
    Using fish heads) fresh ginger mashed 1/4 tsp,
    Mix till well blended, put in wide mouth jar. Leave at room
    temperature for three days then transfer to fridge.
    The whey preserves and adds lactic acid for proper digestion of gut flora. It is very good and good for you.

  16. ericklassen says:

    I am allergic to onions… would this recipe work if I omit the onion? I would store it in the fridge. EK

    • Anon-ish says:

      I would be more worried about lack of moisture than storage, since almost all of the liquid comes from the vegetables, and an onion is fairly juicy. If you don’t want to (or, can’t) use any of the near cousins like leek, chive, or garlic… maybe something like celery would have the right texture? Also, you might want to adjust the spices a little for the differing flavors. I hope it works well for you!

  17. Anon-ish says:

    This looks good… and I think I’ve everything I need. Do you know why the recipe calls for a non-metallic pot for the mushrooms and salt to begin with?

    • Anon-ish says:

      Finished a batch! I played a bit loose with some of the spices – substituted half each ginger and cinnamon for the horseradish, and paprika for the cayenne since I don’t do well with anything spicy. It is nevertheless excellent, savory and rich. I’m drying the mushroom mix now (hint, smaller straining bag will work, but be really annoying. probably worth searching out a full-size one). Good recipe, and lots of fun!

    • Conestogaman says:

      Some metal pots, like aluminium, magnesium, iron, or steel are highly reactive to high salt or acid ingredients like salt, tomatoes, vinegar, lemon juice, and will leave a metallic taste in the finished product.

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  19. Ian Rice says:

    Received this ketchup as a gift for Christmas this year. Amazing steak sauce…yum. One comment: the mushroom used is assumed to be the common button which is an okay fruit but has anyone ever tried making this with the fabulous Porcini? In flavor terms, it is a Rolls Royce (as compared to an Escort). The Boletus is (and was certainly) a common mushroom in the 18th century larder and was probably the usual suspect. I am a mushroom forager and the King Bolete improves when preserved….for what it’s worth!

  20. Audrey says:

    This is also made using mushrooms and originates from India, as a fish sauce ; http://www.cooksinfo.com/garum along the lines of wochesteshire sauce did. Because I recall seeing a post on it somewhere as curry?
    Literature & Lore
    Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, in The Physiology of Taste, Dec 1825, writes: “Garum was dearer (than muria), and we know much less of it. It is thought that it was extracted by pressure from the entrailles of the scombra or mackerel; but this supposition does not account for its high price. There is reason to believe it was a foreign sauce, and was nothing else but the Indian soy, which we know to be only fish fermented with mushrooms.” (Note that Brillat-Savarin also reveals that the French of his time didn’t really know what soy sauce was.)

  21. Steve Skubinna says:

    I’ve watched your mushroom ketchup video several times now, and have decided to make my own. I am using a longer steeped recipe however, from The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, which book I think you’ve mentioned in various videos. It calls for nine days of steeping and does not specify that they ferment, but I expect they will within that amount of time. The fact that the recipe calls to cover the bowl of salted mushrooms with a cloth suggests they do.

    It also uses anchovies, which is in keeping with the probable origin of this sauce as a fermented fish concoction from SE Asia.

  22. jeff says:

    How long will the dried mushroom solids keep?

    • Kevin Carter says:

      Given the amount of salt, and if the mushrooms are completely dried, the mushroom solids will last a very long time. Of course, you’ll likely use it before it goes bad. I recently ran across some mushroom powder from a previous batch that was two years old.

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