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Ketchup -- It's what's for dinner 

Ketchup, catsup, catchup. A few weeks ago, I made a concoction that required mixing ketchup and grape jelly together. In an effort to verify whether or not this was more of a standard culinary practice than I realized, I began researching recipes -- mostly ones that contained ketchup. I didn't find grape jelly as an ingredient in any other recipes involving ketchup; what I did find was: three different spellings of the word; actual Web sites devoted to the red goop; that other people eat it on their mac and cheese, that Baskin Robbins once tried to make ketchup ice cream; and that ketchup has something of a cult following.


Ketchup -- the early days

While we associate ketchup as we know it today with a one Mr. Henry J. Heinz, the word dates back much further. It is believed that the word ketchup is really derived from a word of Chinese origins, ke-tsiap or koe-chiap. Then, it meant shellfish. Somehow, the product and its name made their way in the late 1600s to England, where the word appeared in print as catchup and the sauce still was thought of as a seafood-like condiment. Eventually, in the 1700s, the Brits adopted catchup and turned it into ketchup.

The sauce's tomato-based origins actually date back much further. It is believed that, early in the 1500s, an expedition of Spanish conquistadors, while living in Mexico, discovered the tomato. They liked tomatoes so much, they brought them back to Europe. There, the tomato flourished, and eventually found a permanent home in the cookeries of Spain, Portugal and Italy. Southern Europeans even bottled the stuff, though it was more of a tomato paste at that time. Northern Europeans, however, thought tomatoes might be poisonous. It took them another 200 years or so to jump on the ketchup bandwagon.

In 1876, Henry Heinz began making the ketchup we currently know and love. His recipe has not changed much since then, though in 1983, Heinz introduced the plastic squeeze bottle. In 1991, it became a recyclable plastic squeeze bottle.


Everything you always wanted to know, but never thought to ask

As with wines, there are good years and bad years for ketchup. It all depends on the tomato. If all goes well and the season yields a sweet and flavorful crop, we then have a good ketchup year.

If you're a connoisseur, you may already know, or will be happy to know, that ketchup made in the summer is made directly from ripe tomatoes. So if you're astute, you still have a shot at flavor. Heinz puts a series of letters and numbers on the bottle caps, and if you ignore the first two letters and the last letter, the numbers in between tell you the month and year the ketchup was bottled.

On an unrelated note, my research indicates there is no difference between, ketchup, catsup or catchup. Or fancy catsup.


Ketchup and the new millennium

Latest statistics indicate that 97 percent of all American homes still have traditional tomato ketchup in their kitchen. The average person consumes about three bottles of ketchup per year. But like any tried and true tradition, somebody's always got to mess with it. Ketchup is no exception. In an era of flavored coffee, flavored cream, flavored bagels and other advanced food technologies, comes gourmet ketchup. Surfing around on the Internet, I found recipes for green-tomato ketchup (that's kind of normal); jalapeo ketchup; a banana, mango, cranberry, and blueberry ketchups; mushroom ketchup; cumin-chipotle ketchup; curry ketchup and garlic ketchup. Some say tomto, I say tomato. Give me the old squeeze bottle anytime.

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