Let Me Explain About The Ketchup

I hate tomato ketchup. Or catsup. Or whatever that sickeningly sweet red stuff is that Americans slop over fries, burger, eggs….you name it. I have no idea how so many people can love something so awful. Still…the fact that it is so popular made me wonder: where did this stuff come from?

In a fit of curiosity, I made with the research. The first thing I learned, that there are many kinds of ketchup, intrigued me. Mushroom ketchup? Plum?  Pineapple? I was fascinated by the idea. What made a ketchup a ketchup? And more importantly….what did tomato ketchup taste like BEFORE it was engineered for shelf life?

Ketchup goes back a long way. The original term in Chinese is kê-tsiap. It was a sauce made from fermented fish. From Asia (it’s a little unclear if the sauce originated in China, or was brought there by traders from Vietnam), it made its way to Britain via the sailors on the trading ships that found their way to the East Indies in the 17th century.

Ye Olde British kê-tsiap was not made of tomatoes, sugar, vinegar, and presevatives. The order of the day was more earthy and fishy: mushrooms, nuts, oysters, etc. Tomato ketchup as we know it didn’t originate until nearly 1812, ,and even then, used brandy instead of sugar or vinegar for flavor. As ketchup began to catch on in Britian and the United States, extending the shelf life became problematic. Vinegar was added to allow the sauce to keep longer, but it was so sour that few could stand it. Adding sugar helped to balance the flavor somewhat, even if some of the richness of the tomato and added spices were muted. It was really Henry J. Heinz who masterminded the final solution, and before long, bottles of Heinz ketchup were flying off the shelves. 

All that is well and good, but I wanted to know what a homemade ketchup could taste like. I made some. Here is the recipe I used (from Simply Scratch):

  • 12 ounces Tomato Paste (I used fresh tomatoes cooked down into a paste instead of canned)
  • 1/2 cup Dark Brown Sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon Dry Ground Mustard
  • 1/2 teaspoon Kosher Salt
  • 1/2 scant teaspoon Cinnamon
  • 2 pinches of Ground Clove
  • 2 pinches of Allspice
  • 1 pinch of Cayenne Pepper
  • 2/3 cup Water
  • 4 tablespoons White Wine Vinegar


  • Combine all ingredients in a large mixing bowl.
  • Stir until the sugar is completely dissolved.
  • Store in an airtight container in the fridge and overnight for the flavors to develop. This ketchup recipe should last for 3 weeks in the fridge.

After a few days in the fridge, the spices and sweet balanced the sour of the vinegar nicely, and I was treated to a sauce that was marvelously rich and complex without being overpowering to the food. Naturally, my kids hated it, but when I took it to a cookout with friends, it was generally held to be superior to that nonsense that comes out of the plastic red bottle.

I want to try to make other sorts eventually, and I’d to find a recipe for an approximation of the original fermented fish sauce. One more experiment for the list.

Making Kombucha

One of the true delights in my life for the last several years has been learning how to make things by hand. It started with beer, then cider, then…believe it or not…ketchup, then mead. For the last nine months or so, I have been exploring the world of food fermentation as well: sauerkraut, kimchi, crock pickles, etc.

This weekend I attended a workshop taught by Tara Whitsitt of Fermentation On Wheels. Through her, my horizons have expanded, and so today I am working on making my own kombucha.

Kombucha is basically a fermented tea. People make fairly broad claims about certain health benefit, but I’ve not seen the science on that, so I cannot speak to it. I thought it tasted good, and so, this is how I am spending part of my Tuesday night.

The recipie is simple: water, plain black tea, sugar, and then a Kombucha starter, which is just the organism that does the fermenting. Let it sit for 7-30 days. The longer you let it sit, the less sweet and more fermented it becomes. This is not a thing fermenting for alcohol like beer, rather, it’s the flavor and the bacteria itself that is the main objective.

I find this stuff fascinating. I love the idea of working with living things to create living food and drink. It makes me pretty happy.




Tonight I am boiling down sap into maple syrup, listening to folk music, and reading. It is peaceful, but I am still restless. 

The dog paces around the house, looking for the kids. They are away at their mother’s until Sunday, but that doesn’t stop the poor pooch from checking to see if they’ve materialized in the last 10 minutes. My own restlessness is linked to hers. I am so used to their presence that’s something feels missing without them. It is difficult for either of us to relax in an otherwise empty house.

I often tell my friends that one of the things I want most in my life is a small cabin someplace where I can be alone. Someplace far out where I can see the night sky and listen to the crickets. It sounds idyllic. Then I have nights like these, when I cannot seem to read for any long period being distracted by the relative silence of my home.

I read, get up and check the sap to make sure it is not burning, listen to the music, then open my book once more.

Eventually, I’ll relax. Eventually. But not for a while yet.

It is not being lonely, because I don’t crave company. It is not fear of being alone, because I’m comfortable in my solitude. It is more like the itch of a phantom limb, something you know should be there but is missing. 

I miss my kids.

The dog takes another circuit around the house, just to see if they’ve returned. I rise from my easy chair and add more sap to the slow work of making syrup.

Built To Last

she gulped her coffee and said,

“I want to be here with you,

but you’re, like, seventh on

my list of priorities today.”

he shrugged, smiled, and said,

“that’s okay. you know

where to find me.”


this morning, I burn incense I bought 

twenty years ago

at a store that no longer exists.

the years pass quickly between devotionals

the gods wait, barely noticing.

some paths are longer than others.