By Lynda Hollenbeck, senior editor of The Saline Courier
Fully aware that in this day of "eating healthy" I'm not being politically correct here, I'm still confessing that I'm a big fan of french fries and catsup.
Or should I say french fries and ketchup. I never know.
I don't eat them often, but I like them and I haven't eliminated them from my diet. I just faithfully take my cholesterol-fighting pill every night and keep on enjoying the verboten fare.
However, since the ketchup vs. catsup dilemma is a constant puzzle, I decided to "look it up," as I was taught to do many years ago by many faithful teachers in the Cotton Plant School District (which, sadly, is no more thanks to legislative-forced school consolidation).
My research didn't help much. I learned it's really a matter of personal choice, or in reality, a manufacturer/processor choice.
One Internet site reported that ketchup was one of the earliest names for the condiment, so given in 1711, in Charles Lockyer's "An Account of the Trade in India."
It was believed to have derived from a Chinese dialect, imported into English through Malay, according to this account. The original reportedly was a kind of fish sauce, though the modern Malay and Indonesian version, with the closely related name kecap, is a soy sauce.
Like their Eastern forerunners, Western ketchups were dipping sauces. The first ketchup recipe reportedly appeared in Elizabeth Smith’s book "The Competent Housewife" of 1727 and it included anchovies, shallots, vinegar, white wine, sweet spices (cloves, ginger, mace, nutmeg), pepper and lemon peel.
Not a tomato in sight, you'll note. Tomato ketchup was not introduced until about a century later, in the United States, and caught on only slowly. It was more usual to base the condiment on mushrooms, or sometimes walnuts, in those early years.
If I had known about the fishy origin, I probably never would have tried it in the first place. But, alas, I did and I'm hooked for life.
I still don't know how I should spell it, though. When Heinz introduced commercial ketchup to American kitchens, it became so popular that other manufacturers rushed to catch up to the craze. Soon there were ketchup, catsup, catchup, katsup, catsip, cotsup, kotchup, kitsip, catsoup, katshoup, katsock, cackchop, cornchop, cotpock, kotpock, kutpuck, kutchpuck and cutchpuck. All were tomato-based and bottled and vied to become a household word.
After a time, only three major brands have remained to steal the spotlight: Heinz Ketchup, Del Monte Catsup, and Hunts, which could not decide on a spelling and bottled it under the names Hunts Catsup (east of the Mississippi), Hunts Ketchup (west of the Mississippi), and Hunts Tomato Cornchops (in Iowa only).
An interesting side note: In the 1980s ketchup was declared a vegetable by the government for school lunch menus. Suddenly Del Monte's Catsup, because of its spelling, was not on the approved list. Shortly afterward Del Monte changed the product's name to Del Monte Ketchup. So ketchup apparently won out.
Ketchup has its place of honor in a popular PBS broadcast, Garrison Keillor's "Prairie Home Companion." The cast frequently performs a song about ketchup, which they do spell as k-e-t-c-h-u-p. It ends with the lines: "Ketchup for the good times. Ketchup, ketchup."
You just have to be a regular listener to really get it.
Years ago I was taken aback when I overheard a conversation between two church friends who were talking about making ketchup, or catsup. I'm not sure which they would have chosen.
In any event, I was flabbergasted to hear the exchange between Katie Atkinson and Phillis Pipkin.
Until then, I had never met anyone who actually made the stuff at home. I could recall two movie scenes in which it was being created: "Meet Me In St. Louis," in which Marjorie Main had everybody in the family taste it to determine if it was just right; and the other was a Doris Day flick in which she made her own condiment. But this was Hollywood.
As I listened to the exchange between Katie and Phyllis, I felt as if I were in the presence of greatness — like maybe Julia Child and Martha Stewart or maybe two neighbors from "Little House on the Prairie."
I didn't know whether to bow or kiss their rings.
And just for the record, I never would try to make catsup/ketchup. There's little doubt that we are all the better for it.
Lynda Hollenbeck is senior editor of The Saline Courier.