From Fish to Mushrooms to Tomatoes

The surprising history of ketchup in England

  • If you enjoy the newsletter today, please forward it to someone who’d enjoy it, and tap the heart icon above, which will help me reach more readers. I appreciate your help, y’all!

From Fish to Mushrooms to Tomatoes

By Julia Skinner

When most people in the western world think of ketchup, what comes to mind is a thick, savory/sweet tomato sauce. But our current ketchup is just the latest iteration of an ever-evolving condiment, which began as fish sauce, morphed into a savory mushroom sauce, and finally became the tomato condiment we know today. 

So how did we make the shift from fish to tomatoes? 

In the 1600s and 1700s, English colonial traders began importing fish sauce from the Asian continent (some sources say from China, others from Southeast Asia), and the umami-rich condiment piqued English diners’ interest. It also coincided with a time when English relationships to sauces where in flux: British culinary historian C. Anne Wilson says that the seventeenth century saw a proliferation of thin, uncooked sauces like verjuice or citrus juice, sometimes combined with herbs, spices, or capers. Imported fish sauce (though technically a “cooked” sauce) was on the menu too, adding salt and savory depth to dishes. 

But the raw sauce obsession was short-lived, as changes in dietary recommendations and culinary trends shifted away from sauced meats and towards pickles served alongside meat: A heartier, toothsome condiment rather than simply a dressing. 

The simple sauces went away, but the English desire for salty umami didn’t, and pickled condiments bridged the gap between contemporary food trends and a longing for flavor-packed sauces. 

While pickles were nothing new in England, in this moment we see a shift away from a simple pickle and towards a pickle informed by burgeoning international trade: These pickles featured a hefty helping of spices, including allspice and black pepper, which we still see in today’s ketchup recipes. 

The pickles themselves were made from all kinds of things including walnuts, herbs, and most notably, mushrooms.

When mushrooms are salted and allowed to sit, then pickled with vinegar, they form a dark, rich sauce, and soon enough this creation was as sought-after as the mushrooms themselves. 

The umami-rich condiment was vaguely reminiscent of the imported fish sauces, and the name “ketchup” is thought to be a heavily Anglicized version of the Hokkien Chinese word, kê-tsiap, and the word was applied broadly: By the mid-1700s, mushroom ketchup, fish ketchup, and walnut ketchup were all in regular rotation. 

Of these three broad ketchup types, the mushroom was most popular, and the earliest known recipe appears in 1728. However, it was also common to blend ketchups, and these blends (often mushroom and walnut, sometimes also with anchovies) became the predecessor to Worchestershire sauce. 

By the mid-1700s, many cookery books and manuscripts include at least one ketchup recipe, but at the dawn of the next century, the winds of change began to blow again.

In 1804, James Mease’s “Domestic Encyclopedia” noted that “love apples” (tomatoes) make “a fine catsup,” and Mease later published the first known tomato ketchup recipe in 1812. His recipe used unstrained tomato pulp along with the usual ketchup spices, making for a thicker result than its fungal forebear.

But mushroom ketchup’s popularity reigned supreme through the Victorian period, and it took nearly a century of time and an ocean of distance to topple the condiment from its throne. 

1876, Henry J. Heinz began making ketchup and sold it at the Philadelphia World’s Fair. While he was not the first to bottle ketchup commercially (nor the first to make tomato ketchup), he was the first one to make tomato ketchup a large-scale commercial enterprise. 

The production process for his ketchup was faster and more streamlined than mushroom ketchup (tomato ketchup is simply simmered, while mushroom ketchup is fermented overnight and then cooked), making it easier to scale up to a commercial level. American ketchup also included sugar (and a good amount of it), changing the profile to sweet and savory.

Heinz’ skill as a salesman paid off, and the American public was enamored with his ketchup. To this day, most every American household has a bottle of ketchup in the fridge. However, the same is not true of Britain: While ketchup is a popular enough condiment, Jon Langford says that Brits see potatoes as a blank canvas, upon which can be painted a whole range of flavors. 

He also notes that Heinz’ ketchup came about as America’s national palate was emerging, perhaps nudging us towards our national love of sweet-and-savory. Though mushroom ketchup itself may not grace every table, its legacy does: By the time Heinz exported to Britain, he was up against centuries of savory sauce history, and his ketchup (though popular) never could entirely displace the British desire for savory condiments with salty food. 🍅


Breadlines and Famines with Jeremy Bowditch

Breadlines: invented in the US. (Truly! By a yeast company.)

Famine: always manmade, always political.


Consider signing up for a paid subscription. The money goes toward paying our contributors around the world and, starting in March, a special extra edition every month. (If you like, you can choose any amount over $5 in the “supporter subscription plan” field.)

*If you would like to give less than $5, you can do that via Patreon, and it is very helpful and appreciated! You can give just $1/month, and you’ll get podcast episodes early.


This newsletter is edited by Katherine Spiers, host of the podcast Smart Mouth.

TableCakes Production.

Want to contribute? Here are the submission guidelines.

A Tiny Island, a Large Bread

A treasure from Portugal

  • If you enjoy the newsletter today, please forward it to someone who’d enjoy it, and tap the heart icon above, which will help me reach more readers. I appreciate your help, y’all!

Photo: Something Natural

The Treasure of Nantucket

By Jeremy Fuchs

On the island of Nantucket, 30 miles off the coast of Massachusetts, the locals line up for a particular sort of bread. It’s not indigenous to the island, but it’s been here for centuries.

It’s called Portuguese bread. Don’t get it confused with the more popular and much sweeter massa sovada. This more rustic “Portuguese bread” is pretty much confined to New England.

Given that New England is more or less a straight shot by boat from Portugal, there has long been a large Portuguese population in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and surrounding areas. The annual Feast of the Blessed Sacrament in New Bedford, Mass., is the largest Portuguese festival in the world, and some 320,000 Portuguese folks currently live in Massachusetts. Fall River, famous for being the hometown of Emeril Lagasse, is a remarkable 43.9% Portuguese. 

The bread is one of the gifts of this mass emigration. It’s a rustic loaf, made with water and sometimes milk powder. It doesn’t have the jagged crust of a typical French bread, but it has just enough bite to feel substantial. It has a yellowish hue, a soft texture, and a slightly sweet, but not cloying, taste. It’s the ultimate in daily bread, perfect for sandwiches and dippage.

Here’s the problem: You can’t really get this bread outside of New England. But on Nantucket, it’s everywhere: at every sandwich shop, at every grocery store. As ubiquitous as a bagel in Manhattan. This makes sense, as many Portuguese immigrants ended up on this tiny island. (There’s an old saying that if you look straight into the distance from a Nantucket beach, you’ll see Portugal.) You’ll see tons of linguiça sausage on every menu, including the linguiça-crusted cod at Oran Mor. Brant Point Grill has a dish with a salt cod fritter, a fried-up mixture of salted cod, potato, onion, and garlic. Queequeg’s has a Portuguese fisherman’s stew on the menu.

By and large, though, it’s the bread that steals the show. Portuguese bread would take off if it were more mainstream. But one of its calling cards is its rareness, the feeling of slicing into a secret. Sometimes the best-hidden gems are best kept hidden. 🇵🇹

More Food Reading:

  • On the brief history of bro-gurt. Same idea as Coke Zero, invented because men believe that Diet Coke is for girls, yuck.

  • I’m not sure what to think of this TikTok account, because I’m surprised that a teenage employee explaining how everything at McDonald’s is made hasn’t been shut down yet. But it is interesting - are you familiar with egg forms?

  • On the 50th anniversary of “Diet For a Small Planet.”


Consider signing up for a paid subscription. The money goes toward paying our contributors around the world and, starting in March, a special extra edition every month. (If you like, you can choose any amount over $5 in the “supporter subscription plan” field.)

*If you would like to give less than $5, you can do that via Patreon, and it is very helpful and appreciated! You can give just $1/month, and you’ll get podcast episodes early.


This newsletter is edited by Katherine Spiers, host of the podcast Smart Mouth.

TableCakes Production.

Want to contribute? Here are the submission guidelines.

Where the Derry Girls Go

Pizza IS nice, it turns out

  • If you enjoy the newsletter today, please forward it to someone who’d enjoy it, and tap the heart icon above, which will help me reach more readers. I appreciate your help, y’all!

Kraft Macaroni & Cheese

Just what was James Lewis Kraft getting up to in his kitchen?

Listen to Smart Mouth: iTunes • Google Podcasts • Stitcher • Spotify • RadioPublic • TuneIn • Libsyn

Where in the Derry

By Jasper Hutson

It’s hard not to offend somebody when you talk about Derry. Even by calling it Derry, you’re picking a side: if you’re Protestant, it’s Londonderry; Catholic, Derry. If you’re neither, you just pick one. Probably Derry since it’s easier to say.

The city (that many Americans learned about when “Derry Girls” came to Netflix) is still scarred from decades of violence that mostly ended with the Good Friday Agreement in the ‘90s, but is trying to build a unique identity separate from the sectarian divisions that defined it for so long. That’s involved a lot of investment in the town center, some of which lives within the old city walls. Sure, the old standbys are still here, like a pub that’s been around since 1684. But many of the brand-new (relatively) establishments are very good.

I’ve lived just across the border from Derry for about four years now, and here are a few of my favorite restaurants.

Blackbird is by far my favorite restaurant in the city. It’s squarely in the middle of the Derry price range and it’s always busy (when the pandemic’s not on). The food here is best described as homey. There are a lot of Irish favorites are on the menu, mainstays like fish and chips and mushy peas served on funky little tin plates. 

Blackbird is a gastropub that leans more pub than gastro. They only serve food at certain times of the day, closing up the kitchen in the evening so they can clear out space for the more lucrative liquid customers.

Nonnas Wood Fired Pizza is fighting the good fight for real pizza in a city dominated by the likes of Dominos and Four Star (if you haven’t heard of that chain, imagine pizza made by people who had it described to them over the phone). Its website proudly shows off delightfully misshapen creations, using locally sourced ingredients to make pizzas that just taste right: Soft, charred dough topped with beautiful options. Now with two locations in the city, Nonnas is an experience in effort and craft.

Walled City Brewery serves the best possible version of Irish food. In effect, this is the sort of place you go to find out if you even like the cuisine. The interior is charmless and slightly uncomfortable, but you come and stay for the contemporary takes on old, classic dishes. ☘️ 

More Food Reading:

  • If you want Aplets and Cotlets, you only have a few months. The iconic Washington state company is closing after 101 years in operation.

  • A beautifully empathetic statement from a robbed restaurant owner:

A post shared by @barcitola

Consider signing up for a paid subscription. The money goes toward paying our contributors around the world and, starting in March, a special extra edition every month. (If you like, you can choose any amount over $5 in the “supporter subscription plan” field.)

*If you would like to give less than $5, you can do that via Patreon, and it is very helpful and appreciated! You can give just $1/month, and you’ll get podcast episodes early.


This newsletter is edited by Katherine Spiers, host of the podcast Smart Mouth.

TableCakes Production.

Want to contribute? Here are the submission guidelines.

Pocky Mystery, Beach Town Steak

And some spicy food Twitter

  • If you enjoy the newsletter today, please forward it to someone who’d enjoy it, and tap the heart icon above, which will help me reach more readers. I appreciate your help, y’all!

Pocky with Tien Nguyen

One of the planet's favorite treats ... with a history that got quite weird in the '80s. Have you heard of the Monster with 21 Faces?

Listen to Smart Mouth: iTunes • Google Podcasts • Stitcher • Spotify • RadioPublic • TuneIn • Libsyn

Photo: Andy Evans Photos

A Beach Town’s Rare Tale

Internationally, the most well-known British dishes are fish ‘n’ chips, Sunday roast, and bangers and mash, but for many of us in the U.K., nothing beats a good old-fashioned steak and chips (or “steak frites,” if you must).

Bournemouth Steak House has among the best renditions of the dish.

Now, while not dating back as far as England’s first steakhouses (or chop houses, as they were known), which opened in the early 1700s, the Bournemouth Steak House has been holding its own since 1983, having survived two recessions, a BSE (mad cow disease) scare and, of course, the 2020 pandemic.  

Bournemouth is a resort town, and its season runs from April to September, so relying solely on holidaymakers is risky, but some business owners attempt it.

The owners of the steakhouse, Greek Cypriot immigrants Andrew and Georgia, have wisely looked after the local patrons through the years - though naturally the “grockles” (tourists) come through as well.

Completely unreliant on swanky décor or avant-garde food, Bournemouth Steak House retains its original uneven white walls and ceiling with thin wooden beams. The cooks know rare from medium-rare blindfolded. The main menu is virtually as it was on opening night: red meat perfection. -Michael Renouf

208 Holdenhurst Rd., Boscombe, Bournemouth BH8 8AT, UK. bournemouthsteakhouse.co.uk.


More Food Reading:


Consider signing up for a paid subscription. The money goes toward paying our contributors around the world and, starting in March, a special extra edition every month. (If you like, you can choose any amount over $5 in the “supporter subscription plan” field.)

*If you would like to give less than $5, you can do that via Patreon, and it is very helpful and appreciated! You can give just $1/month, and you’ll get podcast episodes early.


This newsletter is edited by Katherine Spiers, host of the podcast Smart Mouth.

TableCakes Production.

Want to contribute? Here are the submission guidelines.

Macaroni & Breakfast

And other items to enjoy

  • If you enjoy the newsletter today, please forward it to someone who’d enjoy it, and tap the heart icon above, which will help me reach more readers. I appreciate your help, y’all!

  • This is the free edition of Smart Mouth. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing.

    Subscribe now

Breakfast with Kate Willett

Intuitive eating wasn’t always a monetized concept - it’s just how people ate. (If you don’t have to clock in at work, you can eat whenever you want.)

Listen to Smart Mouth: iTunes • GooglePodcasts • Stitcher • Spotify • RadioPublic • TuneIn • Libsyn

Speaking of which, I’m deeply interested in trying these two breakfasts:

Cilbir

Mas Huni

Image: Envisioning the American Dream

And Called It Macaroni

It is often said that Thomas Jefferson brought macaroni and cheese to America. This is obviously absurd - for one thing, if anyone in Jefferson’s family was responsible for the dish arriving in the U.S., it was his brother-in-law James Hemings.

But another point that sticks in my craw is this: what we call macaroni and what people in the late 18th/early 19th century called macaroni are not the same. Alexandre Dumas called macaroni “long pipes of pity” (he did not care for it); a guest at Monticello wrote that he mistook the pasta for “strillions of onions.” In fact, the often-noted macaroni press that Jefferson had shipped to Virginia from Naples was actually a mold for long, thin pasta. You know, spaghetti. In Italian, “maccheroni” was a catch-all term for a number of dried pastas. Jefferson and his cohort didn’t know that they could get more specific.

Even today, in the U.S., “macaroni product” covers about a dozen types of Italian noodles. What we call macaroni - elbow pasta - probably originated in what is now Switzerland (totally different culinary culture than Naples), and was most often used in soups. A lot of people claim to know who invented macaroni and cheese as we know it, and when, but it’s too much of a mash-up of western European ingredients and techniques to pinpoint. Ultimately it doesn’t really matter. But Thomas Jefferson is not part of the story.

Sources: 1,2,3,4


Food-Related Laffs:

Maggi?

Mingling?

Munya!

More Food Reading:

Consider signing up for a paid subscription. The money goes toward paying our contributors around the world and, starting in March, an extra edition every month. (If you like, you can choose any amount over $5 in the “supporter subscription plan” field.)

*If you would like to give less than $5, you can do that via Patreon, and it is very helpful and appreciated! You can give just $1/month, and you’ll get podcast episodes a week early.


This newsletter is edited by Katherine Spiers, host of the podcast Smart Mouth.

TableCakes Production.

Want to contribute? Here are the submission guidelines.

Loading more posts…