Ketchup Pours It On

The condiment has gone sassy, with food colorings and varied flavorings designed to keep sales flowing.

October 24, 2001|By Ross Grant | Ross Grant,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In the early 1990s, news reports suggested that ketchup was under challenge as America's national condiment. Dollar for dollar, sales of salsa were exceeding ketchup.

A decade later, ketchup's popularity is stronger than ever - thanks to green and purple versions that appeal to kids, as well as to gourmet sauces like banana, mango or green tomato ketchup aimed at higher-end consumers.

Ketchup has been one of the most stable foods on the market. But it seems to be turning on its head. Besides green and purple food coloring, the sauce is being infused with ginger, maple syrup, jalapeno or prickly pear cactus, as a new generation of microbrewed ketchup shows up in specialty stores.

One company produces diet ketchup and another offers a "ketchup of the month" club. In Germany, curry-flavored ketchups are the top sellers.

"Today, every time I turn around, there's a new ketchup," says Andrew F. Smith, author of Pure Ketchup: A History of America's National Condiment (Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001, $16.95).

"People just don't realize how many wonderful ketchup flavors there are out there. You have to let go of the concept that regular ketchup is the only way," says Larry Bailis, president of KetchupWorld, which sells 60 varieties of ketchup online and through mail order.

Even the major ketchup producers are coming up with successful innovations. Heinz was selling 49 percent of the ketchup eaten in the United States when it took a major gamble last October and added green food coloring to its 125-year-old ketchup recipe.

Business analysts scoffed, but the company packaged the stuff in a curvy bottle and watched consumers eat it up. In seven months, Heinz sold 10 million bottles, boosting its share of the ketchup market by a record six points. Last month, it began phase two: purple ketchup.

Ketchup may be an American institution, but it is also one of the few condiments that continues to reinvent itself. The sauce that arrived on this continent almost 300 years ago wasn't thick or sweet, and it certainly wasn't made of tomatoes. Rather, it was a way of preserving perishable foods in the form of a long-lasting condiment.

But a lot has changed since Colonial cooks bottled their extra mushrooms, cucumbers or kidney beans as ketchup - and since the early 1900s, when the smooth tomato syrup took root as America's national condiment.

Heinz's color innovation relied on a critical shift in the market: More than half of the ketchup sold in America is eaten by kids 13 and under. And because children love to play with food, Heinz's food scientists put a thin nozzle on the bottle for ketchup drawing.

"It sold like gangbusters," Heinz spokesman Michael Mullen says of green ketchup. "It allows kids to personalize their food. We brought excitement back into the market."

Technically, though, this is not ketchup. Because food coloring has been added, the sauce does not meet federal ketchup guidelines. Instead, the company calls it "Heinz EZ Squirt: A Kid's Condiment Made With Real Ketchup."

Heinz's main competitor in the ketchup world, Hunt's, has no plans to jump into Technicolor.

"We think that ketchup is ketchup, and people are pretty loyal to the red stuff. This may be something of a novelty, but we don't think it has much staying power," says company spokeswoman Kay Carpenter.

In the 19th century, red ketchup was the novelty. The original ketchup came in many forms, including the fermented fish sauce that arrived in England through Asian trade routes. Heavy in salt or vinegar, it kept for months, adding spice to a monotonous meal or masking the taste of rancid meat.

The name comes from the Chinese ke-tsiap, a fish sauce developed in the 17th century from a combination of pickling sauces and fermented foods. The sauce arrived in England at a time when people were eager to try new tastes. Cooks of the period yearned to become "accomplished philosophers of the mouth," to titillate the tongue and vibrate the palate, as Mistress Margaret Dods put it in her 1833 edition of The Cook and Housewife's Manual, published in London.

Ketchup soon took on a unique role in British and American food culture, becoming an outlet for experimentation. Anchovy ketchup. Lemon ketchup. Liver, lobster and stale-beer ketchups. Some were based on celery or pimento, others just on sugar. It was usually thin, like Worcestershire sauce.

Tomatoes arrived on the scene in the late 1700s, when Spanish explorers brought these "love apples" back from South America. The first tomato-ketchup recipe was published in 1812, according to Smith, the food historian.

While thicker than other ketchups, the first tomato ketchup wasn't sweet; and instead of vinegar, it featured brandy. But tomatoes soon challenged mushrooms and anchovies as the preferred ketchup ingredient.

Cousin Tabitha, in the 1827 edition of American Farmer, praised tomato ketchup as a remedy for an upset stomach and called it "the best condiment for fish or steak that ever pantry was furnished with."

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