Over the centuries, humankind has developed the prosperity to tease, torment, titillate and please its taste buds with all manner of edibles. Numerous civilizations harbored brave souls who, on a whim or through constant creativity, whipped up strange varieties of spice combinations and sauces that came to be known as condiments.
The Chinese during the 15th century created a tangy sauce of pickled fish, shellfish and spices mixed with brine that was served on all manner of fish and fowl. It was given the name of ke-tsiap. This spicy condiment quickly spread to other South Pacific nations with English sailors discovering the sauce in Malaya, where it was referred to as “kechap.”
The sauce quickly traveled to England, where the British fiddled with the basic ingredients. Difficult-to-obtain items were replaced with mushrooms, walnuts, oysters, lemons and anchovies. Eventually, tomatoes were added. The resulting sauce rapidly won the hearts and minds and taste buds of the British population, who called the highly pungent condiment “ketchup.”
Working its way across the Atlantic Ocean, ketchup was offered to American settlers in 1792 in the cookbook The New Art of Cookery, printed in Philadelphia by Richard Briggs. The recipe was titled “Tomato Catsup Sauce.” An impediment to the sauce’s popularity was the hard work involved in the lengthy preparation.
The process consumed an entire day such was the amount of work involved. Not to mention that as the sauce thickened, there sprang into the air the odor of something like burnt preserves and ill-smelling sealing wax. This made the whole house almost unbearable to live or sleep in long after the sauce was bottled and stored away.
The obnoxious mixture required constant stirring to keep it from burning. Young boys were often assigned the task of stirring, as well as cleaning the huge kettles when their mothers and grandmothers made the spicy sauce. Keeping the kettle constantly fired with loads of wood was also a demanding task.
Despite the heavy task of cooking batches of the tangy sauce, New England families created various types of ketchup. While plying the oceans, sea captains discovered variations of ketchup using the tomato of Mexico and the Spanish West Indies, bringing the recipes home.
A tomato-based version was finally decided on and applied to various meat dishes and codfish. Locally brewed ketchup eventually found its way into Sunday dinners of baked beans simmered with pork and molasses and eaten with brown bread.
In the late 1800s, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, by Isabella Beeton, was religiously followed by American homemakers, and gave counsel to all readers on the virtues of good ketchup. “This flavoring ingredient, if genuine and well prepared, is one of the most useful sauces to the experienced cook, and no trouble should be spared in its preparation,” she wrote.
Her manual also offered recipes using ketchup with mushrooms, walnuts, oysters, echoing earlier British experiments in creating their version of the original ke-tsiap.
The spirit of the entrepreneur burned brightly during the late 1800s for Henry J. Heinz, born in 1844 of a German immigrant family. At the age of 12, he said his parents supplied produce from their home garden in Sharpsburg, Pa. At 16, Henry employed women to help with his small business that was rapidly growing.
Heinz recreated his mother’s pure and superior horseradish in large batches, but with a unique twist. His product was packed in clear glass containers for all to observe its purity, whereas competitors packaged their products in green glass jars. The colored glass hid the fact that they stretched their horseradish by adding cheap filler such as turnips.
Despite Heinz and his partner, L. Clarence Noble, being forced into bankruptcy during the banking panic of 1875, Heinz managed with the help of his brother and a cousin to establish a different food business that same year.
Heinz tackled the mass production concept of producing tomato ketchup. His own recipe compressed the cooking process to roughly two to three hours, marketing the product initially throughout the United States. He renamed the condiment catsup. His bottled catsup became so successful, the early marketing phrase “blessed relief for mother and the other women in the household” echoed throughout America.
In the United States and overseas, Heinz’s Catsup was known as the “tomato tornado in a bottle.” Within a few years of its initial creation, catsup became so successful that foreign sales shot out of sight, creating an even heavier demand for the red condiment.
Nine billion ounces of catsup distributed on a global basis have created a catsup empire. But perhaps nowhere else in the world is there a phenomenon of such magnitude as that which takes place through America on a daily basis. It is the ritual of pouring catsup on naked french fries before eating.
If the indomitable Henry J. Heinz were alive today, he might look with dismay on the plastic bottles that have replaced his clear glass.
There is, however, green to be had from those old catsup bottles from the past. Those pristine clear bottles from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s are highly valued by bottle collectors.
The value of a collectible Heinz bottle will vary, depending on condition and the era. When trying to assess value it might be wise to take a passage from the English poet, Samuel butler:
“For what is worth in anything,
But so much money as will bring?”
Ketchup recipe from The Sugar House Book, 1801.
Get the tomatoes quite ripe on a dry day, squeeze them with your hands till reduced to a pulp, then put half a pound of fine salt to one hundred tomatoes, and boil them for two hours.
Stir them to prevent burning.
While hot press them through a fine sieve, with a silver spoon till nought but the skin remains, then add a little mace, 3 nutmegs, allspice, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, and pepper to taste.
Boil over a slow fire till quite thick, stir all the time.
Bottle when cold.
One hundred tomatoes will make four or five bottles and keep good for two or three years.