Greetings From Planet Ketchup

RICHARD NIXON ADORED IT ON COTTAGE cheese. Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut poured it over pancakes. And according to scholarly epicure Andrew F. Smith, every fancy-dancy restaurant worth its stars keeps a supply on hand--and not just for folks who insist on drenching their chateaubriand. We're talking, of course, about ketchup, the Esperanto of sauces. With his book "Pure Ketchup: A History of America's National Condiment" (Smithsonian Institution Press) freshly out in paperback, Smith remains unabashedly evangelical about the much-loved--and much-maligned--sauce.

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Break this to us gently--ketchup wasn't originally American or tomato based?

No, the word is Chinese, meaning "brine of pickled fish." By the time it got to Indonesia, it became what we would call today a soy sauce. Then the Brits took back the word--katchop--but didn't have soybeans, so they explored all sorts of ways to make something similar.

Which included what?

Mushrooms, kidney beans, walnuts, anchovies. So far, I've made about 70 different kinds. Mushroom ketchup is absolutely fantastic. It was originally used in savory pies, and it's excellent on anything you'd add mushrooms to. I found liver ketchup in a book dated 1876, but there's no statement how it would be used.

Why is ketchup so disparaged?

Once manufacturing made it widely available [in the late 1800s], it became viewed as lower-echelon food. Earlier in the 19th century it was a gourmet sauce. The bottom of a menu would say something like, "We proudly serve mushroom ketchup." Today the cost of ketchup is mostly packaging. As far as I know, ketchup can be purchased in every country on the planet.

Global hegemony, in other words.

In Scandinavia, it's the typical ingredient for spaghetti. And eaten with fish balls. In Japan, where ketchup is the No. 2 condiment, after soy sauce, it's eaten with egg rolls. Heinz and others market different formulas, depending on the region. In Africa, ketchup is used on many traditional foods, in part, I think, because of ketchup's image. Ketchup is viewed as what it means to be a truly modern person.

Let's talk spelling.

I've run across about 30 different ways the word has been published. The Oxford English Dictionary lists four spellings: ketchup, catsup, catchup, kitchup. Heinz began marketing it as "ketchup," and since they make over 50% of the world's ketchup, that's become the dominant spelling.

Where does ketchup go from here?

Designer. There are about 200 new ketchups on the market. They tend to be extremely hot or spicy. Some restaurants have begun making their own. Just when you think you know ketchup, you'll see someone making apple ketchup and cherry and garlic.

Ooh.

Yes, they're wonderful.

What's your personal favorite?

Among the non-tomato ketchups, my favorite is cranberry. I put it on ice cream, and it's out of this world.

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