My grandmother knew what to do on a hot and humid August morning. On one of those days when the air felt like wet foam rubber, she ordered everybody out of the kitchen and made tomato ketchup.
On one of the days when the bed sheets stuck and the garden slugs labored away, Grandmother Lily Rose put the corner of Guilford Avenue and 29th Street under a cloud of vinegar and spicy tomato mist.
Late August was always ketchup weather on her culinary calendar. It fell somewhere between peach cake, soft crabs and the return of the oyster.
Lily Rose was the unchallenged matriarch of a household of 12, a woman who, for all her protestations about hating to cook, was the best ever. There are those who attest that her homemade tomato ketchup was among her most supreme accomplishments. Her son has been testing ketchups for the past 40 years and never come up with any to come near hers.
Her cooking was seasonal. Only when she saw a large bushel of overripe tomatoes for, say, 75 cents did she pull out her largest pots from her ample food laboratory. Lots of runny tomatoes were needed to cook down to ketchup.
Ketchup-making and bottling were strictly a once-a-year ordeal. The operation required multiple trips to the cellar, her storehouse for such medieval-looking gadgets as the cherry pitter, the meat grinder and the bottle capper. The bottle capper was the item reserved for ketchup day. The pitter and grinder were for other tasks.
Her old Oriole gas range (manufactured in Baltimore, of course) did heroic service throwing out tongues of orange fire under the tomato kettles, the largest vats in the house. Within minutes, the kitchen was steamy with the odors of tomatoes, vinegar, sugar and spices. All those boiling pots only added to the in-house humidity.
The ketchup had to cook down slowly, and for a long time. Those red, juicy 'maters took their time breaking down into a sweet, runny ketchup. By this time, the whole neighborhood could smell Lily's kitchen.
Lily didn't put her ketchup into Mason jars, as she did her pickles. ketchup went into the old-fashioned long-necked Pepsi-Cola and Hires Root Beer bottles she'd saved and washed throughout the year. Once the ketchup had simmered down to its proper consistency and taste, it was time to get the funnel and start capping. The grandchildren (I was the oldest of six) considered it a great occasion when one of the bottles would kick off its cap and send ketchup over the pantry walls. However, Lily was not so amused.
The ketchup was used on many dishes, especially those served as the days grew cooler and fall arrived. I recall its going over steamed shrimp, fried oysters and great pans full of scrapple.
As a child, I was pulled in by slick ads for commercial, store-bought ketchup. But store-bought turned out to be tasteless and possessed none of the kick and character of my grandmother's variety.
Years later, while spending too much money at a fancy New Orleans hotel restaurant, I spotted corned beef hash, served with homemade ketchup, on the breakfast menu. This ketchup came served in a fancy silver-plate gravy boat along with a waiter in a white coat to ladle it out. It wasn't bad, but alas, never was good as that made 40 years ago on a humid August morning on Guilford Avenue.