Ketchup, the thick, sweet, tomato-based condiment found on nearly every restaurant table and in nearly every American fridge, is more exotic than you might think. Ketchup or catsup, spellings were interchangeable and far from standardized, takes its name from the Mandarin name for a sauce of fermented soybeans, k-tsiap. When Europeans encountered this sauce in Southeast Asia, they returned with a taste for it. Lacking soybeans, they produced substitutes using anchovies, walnuts, mushrooms, and oysters. American colonists brought these recipes with them and experimented with sauces produced from apples and beans.
While ketchup was imported to America, tomato ketchup or American ketchup may be an American invention. As tomatoes spread through the United States [link to stewed tomatoes recipe], it is likely an enterprising ketchup-maker determined to try tomatoes as the base for the savory sauce. Tomato-based ketchup quickly gained popularity with Lydia Maria Child declaring in 1832, “the best sort of catsup is made from tomatoes.” Child’s catsup combined tomatoes with mace, cloves, allspice, pepper, mustard, and cayenne into a thick, spicy sauce she recommended serving with roast meat or adding to a stew or soup to add richness. Over time, like most things in the American diet, ketchup became sweeter. As discussed in the recipe for Peach Marmalade, technological innovation and the spread of slavery in the nineteenth century combined to make sugar less expensive and more readily available. Consequently, sugar found its way into more recipes, including tomato ketchup.
By the end of the nineteenth century, tomato ketchup was mass-produced, bottled, and sold around the country, perhaps most famously by Henry John Heinz. Heinz founded the H.J. Heinz Company in 1876; one factor in Heinz’s success was his use of clear glass bottles for his products.  In an era of few regulations around the purity and safety of food, clear glass allowed the consumer to view the quality of Heinz’s merchandise. However, to become a requirement in American refrigerators and restaurant tables, ketchup needed the invention of three major host foods: hamburgers, hotdogs, and French fries. After introducing these foods in the early twentieth century to American diners, tomato ketchup became, as the New York Tribune declared in 1896, America’s national condiment.
Heinz’s recipe is proprietary, but it likely includes more spices and sugar than Randolph’s simple tomato-based sauce. Early nineteenth-century recipes for Catsup (also sometimes called Soy) were intended as an ingredient for other dishes. There is scant evidence that they appeared on early American tables for diners to apply to a dish. Nevertheless, we enjoyed Randolph’s Tomato Catsup as we would its present-day counterpoint as a dip for fries, chicken nuggets, and other dippers. Without any added sugar, just the tomatoes’ sweetness, it is much more savory than your favorite brand of ketchup, and the addition of mace gives it a little something different.
Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife (1838), p. 162.
Adapted by RA Snell
- 3 lbs tomatoes
- 1-2 teaspoons of salt, plus more for seasoning
- 1/8 cup onion, diced
- Pepper & mace, to taste
1. Core the tomatoes and cut into quarters. Place in a sauce pan and generously sprinkle with 1-2 teaspoons of salt.
3. Simmer over medium heat for 40 minutes stirring often, until the tomatoes have broken down and released all their juices.
4. Strain the tomatoes through a colander, pushing through all the juices with a spoon.
5. Combine the tomato juice, onion, and seasonings in a blender or food processer. Blend until the onion is incorporated into the tomato mixture.
6. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring often, until the mixture is thickened. About 30 minutes.
7. Place in a tightly sealed jar. Keep refrigerated.
Yield: ~8 oz
Mace is a product of the nutmeg tree (Myristica fragrans), the tropical evergreen that also produces nutmeg. The yellowish-brown spice derives from the red lacy coating (aril) of the nutmeg seed. It is available ground or as dried blades (Randolph’s recipe refers to blades of mace) and was a common flavoring in colonial and early American foodways. Today, mace frequently appears in Asian, Caribbean, Indian, and Moroccan cuisines in both savory dishes and baked goods. The flavor of mace is similar to nutmeg but spicier than sweet. The flavor is often described as a combination of cinnamon and pepper. This recipe requires a tiny pinch of mace. Cinnamon, nutmeg, or allspice may be substituted but will all yield slightly different flavors than Randolph’s original recipe.
One 15oz can of tomato sauce may be substituted for the fresh tomatoes, skip to step 5.
 Lydia Maria Child, The American Frugal Housewife (Boston: Carter, Hendee & Co., 1832), 35.
 Heinz founded the company with his brother and cousin and it was originally called F & J Heinz. Heinz bought out his cofounders in 1888 and renamed the company H.J. Heinz.
Peggy Towbridge Filippone, “What is Mace? Uses, Benefits, Recipes,” The Spruce Eats (accessed Sept. 2, 2020), https://www.thespruceeats.com/what-is-mace-1807031.
Ketchup (Catsup), Food History Timeline (accessed Sept. 2, 2020), http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodsauces.html#ketchup.
Sandra L. Oliver, Food in Colonial and Federal America (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005), 76-7.
Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife, or Methodical Cook, ed. Karen Hess (Washington, D.C., 1824; repr., Columbia: S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1984), 162.
Andrew F. Smith, ed., The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 342-3.
Senator John Heinz History Center
Greenwich Historical Society
4 thoughts on “Tomato Catsup”