Powell: HOLY COW! HISTORY: When America was terrified of ketchup

By J. Mark Powell

Your ancestors were once scared to death by a condiment. No, really, they are. They were so terrified, in fact, we almost lost our most beloved sauce. This is what happens when Americans fear ketchup. If you think this sweet treat was born in the 1950s when Richie, Potsie, and Fonzie spread it on French fries on Arnold’s Drive-in’s “Happy Days,” think again.

Ketchup (or ketchup for the language purists among us) is so much more than that.

It’s been around for a long time, first appearing in the United States in 1682, although it was made with mushrooms during colonial times. Tomatoes became popular in the 19th century. An 1817 cookbook recipe includes anchovies. By the 1850s, anchovies were out of fashion, sweetened with sugar, and the product we know today began to emerge.

Civil War soldiers wrote home begging it to break the monotony of military food.

Different variations of ketchup have been sold for centuries. Farmers made from crops peddle it. Jonas Yerkes is credited with being the first American to bottle and market the stuff.

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H. & J. Heinz hit the market in a big way, introducing its iconic Heinz Tomato Ketchup in 1876 and popularizing it with the snappy slogan, “Blessed are mothers and other housewives!”

By the 20th century, ketchup had gone mainstream. There are so many brands that you can’t shake the proverbial stick. But all face equally serious problems. Ketchup has a limited shelf life.

Over time, these things rot. Unscrupulous manufacturers hide it in bottles made of brown, green or blue glass. Customers don’t know if their container contains the contaminated condiment until they take it home and open it.

Henry Heinz solved this problem by putting his ketchup in a clear glass jar. Even though it costs a penny more than cheaper stained glass, he thinks consumers will pay extra to know exactly what they’re getting. His gamble paid off, eventually forcing the industry to switch to clear glass.

But this only solves part of the problem. The bottling process involves fermenting the tomatoes. As the 19th century drew to a close, fermentation increasingly exploded.

Yes, you are not mistaken. Several bottles of good quality American ketchup that Mom kept in the pantry have burst!

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Consider this 1895 New York Sun article: “A bottle of ketchup recently exploded on the dining table of a family in Michigan City, Indiana, knocking all the plates off it with such force.”

Or look at this 1903 headline in the St. Paul Globe: “Bottle of Ketchup Explodes in Her Hand: 12-Year-Old Girl Severely Cut by Splashing Glass.”
Ketchup isn’t good anymore; it can be deadly.

Another factor is also to blame. Manufacturers are increasingly adding chemicals to their products. Turn-of-the-century research showed that many even contained some form of preservatives.

Dr. Harvey Wiley, chief of the USDA’s chemical division, recruited young male workers to consume various preservatives and studied the results. Dubbed the “Poison Squad” by the media, they documented enough physical side effects (everything from headaches and heartburn to cramps and constipation) to fill a hospital.

The culprit was finally identified. Benzoates were the preservative of choice in that era, and consumers were sickened as bottles exploded.
It’s hard to imagine today, and some wonder whether the sale of ketchup should be banned entirely.

Henry Heinz came to the rescue again. A proponent of transparency in the food industry, his researchers found a way in 1906 to make the paraben-free sauces Americans were craving. The secret is to double the salt, sugar and vinegar. Over the next two years, Heinz produced 12 million bottles, none of which spoiled.

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Again, Heinz bet that customers would pay more for a better product, and he hit the jackpot again.

The benzoate lobby (and such a thing) fought back fiercely. A vicious war is waged in the pages of academic journals. The Blue Ribbon Panel has declared benzoates safe if consumed in small amounts.

But Americans are not buying it, intellectually or financially. They vote with their wallets. By 1911, Heinz and his preservative-free ketchup had won the day.

The quarrel even played a role in the creation of the Food and Drug Administration in 1906.

So, the next time you remove the bun from your burger or lift the bottle on your hot dog, stop and remember Heinz, Dr. Willie, the Poison Squad, and everyone who made ketchup safe for democracy. You’ll be eating mustard without them.

God! The history is written by novelist, former television reporter and die-hard history buff J. Mark Powell.


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