Where would a hamburger be without ketchup? If not wearing the popular red sauce or another condiment, the beloved American sandwich would be naked and not at all suitable for family 4th of July parties. I discussed the history of the hamburger in my last post, so now I’ll talk a little about ketchup.

Since the tomato was considered poisonous (or at least really bad tasting) by most of the English-speaking world up until the late 1700s, ketchup would seem to be a recent invention. Not so. In the 1600s, British sailors brought the sauce back from the trips to the Orient, where it was already very popular. Why didn’t they consider it poisonous? Because it wasn’t made with tomatoes. It was the brine from pickled shellfish. (Try that on a burger sometime!)

Kate Dolan says oysters used to be principal ingredient in ketchup

Will you be putting pickled oyster sauce on your burger this 4th of July?


Europeans soon began developing their own versions of ketchup made from pickled oysters, walnuts and mushrooms. The sauce was thin, sour, and highly seasoned with spices such as ginger, mace (the outer hull of nutmeg) and cloves. In other words, it was not anything like what we think of as ketchup.

Recipes for ketchup made with tomatoes were not first published until 1801, though some cooks undoubtedly began experimenting with tomato ketchup well before then. The recipes became sweeter (Americans like sugar) and the sauce became really popular in the 1870s when companies like Heinz began to bottle and sell it ready-made (Americans also like convenience). Before the bottles were introduced, manufacturers produced ketchup in cans, but it had a terrible reputation. Some of it was found to contain excessive preservatives like boric acid, formalin, salicylic acid and benzoic acid. The ketchups that didn’t go overboard on chemicals were frequently rancid instead. Manufacturers used coal tar to create a bright red color. And one producer was found to have made a ton of “tomato ketchup” using dried apples instead of tomatoes.

Why is “ketchup” sometimes spelled “catsup”? Originally, the sauce was called kētsiap (in China) or kētchap (in Malaysia) or something simillar, depending on the country of origin. Spelling of all words in the English language was not standardized until after the dictionary became accepted, so it is not surprising that there were initially different phonetic spellings of the word when it was anglicized. However, over time, while the spellings of most words became standard, the spellings of ketchup became more diverse. Manufacturers labeled their products with whatever title they thought most appealing to the populations they served. Hunts even marketed their product as ketchup in the western U.S., catsup in the East, and supposedly “cornchops” in Iowa (though I haven’t been able to properly corroborate this). Though dictionaries allow either spelling, the government inadvertently standardized the spelling when it classified “ketchup” as a vegetable for school lunch menus in the 1980s. “Catsup” was not on the list.


Sources for this article include The Tomato in America: Early History, Culture and Cooking by Andrew F. Smith and Martha Washington’s Book of Cookery annotated by Karen Hess.