“How did they make old-timey ketchup?”: A Caterpickles Investigative Report

The 1905 New England Cook Book by Marion Harland, Miss M. Parloa, Mrs. D. A. Lincoln, Thomas J. Murray, and Many Other Authorities

One of the reasons I love eating at local diners is that they tend to serve ketchup in glass bottles. The Five-Year-Old, though, was a bit surprised to learn that squeeze-and-squirt hasn’t always been fundamental to the ketchup experience.

The Five-Year-Old: “This is an old-timey bottle?”

Mommyo: “Yep.”

The Five-Year-Old, warily eying the red glob on her plate: “How do they make old-timey ketchup, Mommyo?”

I didn’t know, but making old-timey ketchup sure sounded like a lot of fun.

Step 1: Find a recipe

I was on the verge of Asking the iPhone when I remembered that I had acquired some old-timey cookbooks while doing the research for my novel-in-progress, so I decided to consult them instead.

The reference texts.

Of the three that I had acquired, only one, Marion Harland’s 1905 New England Cook Book included a recipe for homemade ketchup.

Yeah, I know. I was surprised that The Original Fannie Farmer 1896 Cook Book didn’t include a ketchup recipe too. The last of the three, Michelle Berriedale-Johnson’s The Victorian Cookbook, is a more modern creation that discusses the ins and outs of elegant dinners. And I think we can all agree that even homemade ketchup has pretty much no business attending elegant dinners.

Step 2: Translate the Recipe

The recipe we settled on (Tomato Catsup No. 2 for those of you lucky enough to have Harland etal’s cookbook) calls for a peck of tomatoes. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t buy tomatoes by the peck. Even with Farmer Greg at the Dedham Square Country Store I talk in pounds.

Clearly before I did anything else I would need to translate the old-timey measurements. I may not have wanted to source my old-timey recipe from the iPhone, but I had no problem Asking the iPhone how to understand it.

1 peck of tomatoes: Assuming a bushel of tomatoes weighs 53 lbs, there are 4 pecks in a bushel, so 1 peck of tomatoes = 13.25 lbs

1 large tablespoonful of assorted spices: At first, I assumed this would be roughly equivalent to a modern tablespoon, but I decided to Ask the iPhone anyway. Turns out a tablespoonful in an old-timey recipe can mean anything from 3 – 4 of our modern teaspoons. How much you use depends on what you’re measuring. A tablespoonful of baking soda, for example, meant a rounded tablespoonful in which the mound on the top of the spoon was roughly the same size as the dip in the spoon. In other words, something closer to 4 tsp in modern terms. Spices, though, were measured more frugally. A tablespoonful of those would be closer to our current 3-tsp tablespoon. Cooks were expected to know which was which, so the recipes didn’t spell it out. Tomato Catsup No. 2 calls for a large tablespoonful, which sounds like it could mean the 4 tsp size, but then again, we’re talking about spices here, so maybe not. I’m going to have to go with a semi-heaping tablespoon and hope for the best.

Next up, a quarter-pound of salt: Goodness, how much catsup will this make anyway? 13 pounds of tomatoes? A quarter-pound of salt? I think my blood pressure just doubled. Regardless, when it comes to adding salt to recipes, I prefer to think in tablespoons and cups, not pounds. A pound of salt appears to be 1.5 cups + 1 Tbsp, so a quarter-pound would be (1.5 cups + 1 Tbsp) x .25 = .37 cups + .25 Tbps. The heck with it, I’m calling it half a cup.

Daddyo, helpfully: “It depends on the grind of the salt.”

A third of a cup, then.

A quarter-pound of mustard: Mustard, fortunately, is sold by the ounce, so no conversion needed there. I’ll simply add 4 oz of it. But what kind of mustard are they talking about? Since French’s didn’t come out with prepared mustard until 1904, and sales of said mustard didn’t take off until 1921, I’m going to go out on a limb here and declare that when my 1905 recipe calls for mustard, it doesn’t mean French’s Classic Yellow. A quick consultation with Gran reveals that in fact the recipe is probably calling for powdered mustard.

Gran: “My goodness, Shala, that’s a lot of mustard. Are you sure that’s wise?”

No, no I’m not at all sure that this is wise. Which brings us to Step 3.

Step 3: Scale the recipe down.

Frankly, I don’t actually expect us to like this catsup. For one thing, there’s no sugar in it. For another, there’s a quarter-pound of salt. We’re second generation Heinz folk in this family, which means we like our catsup on the sweet side.

Also, given the sketchiness of the instructions in this recipe, there’s a high chance that my version of Tomato Catsup No. 2 won’t exactly live up to Marion Harland’s expectations.

Since I don’t expect to like the results of our little experiment, I don’t want to waste a lot of food making it. But does the recipe require a certain volume to work? “Boil gently three hours” implies that it does. Half a recipe would probably be safe, but if we’re just going to have a taste, I’d rather divide the recipe by quarters. Or eighths if I can figure out the fractional spices.

But will that be enough for the magic to happen?

It’s a Caterpickles adventure. Stay tuned to find out.

Related Links:

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About Shala Howell

I spent two decades helping companies like Bell Labs, Juniper Networks, and a genetic testing company that was later acquired by CVS translate some of the world’s most complicated concepts into actionable, understandable English. Now I'm working on a much harder problem -- fostering children’s curiosity and engagement in the scientific, artistic, and linguistic world that surrounds them. The first book in my Caterpickles Parenting Series, What’s That, Mom?, focuses on how to use public art to nurture children’s curiosity in the world around them. My next book will focus on science, and how parents without a science degree can answer their curious child's questions without enrolling in a college level refresher course. In the meantime, you can find me blogging about life with a very curious Eleven-Year-Old at Caterpickles.com, chatting about books and the writing life at BostonWriters.blog, and tweeting about books, writing, science, & things that make me smile at @shalahowell.
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