TRANSCRIPT How Ketchup Got Thick

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, How Ketchup Got Thick, first released on July 19, 2022. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

JIMMY FALLON: Uh, people are still talking about yesterday’s bombshell hearing about former president Trump. We heard that at one time, Trump got so angry that he threw his plate at the wall, and then he got ketchup all over the place. (LAUGHTER)

FALLON: And apparently, it’s inspired a new product. Watch this.

VOICEOVER: Say goodbye to messy cleanups. And hello to, the Trump magic eraser! (LAUGHTER)

VOICEOVER: The best way to clean food off your walls. Like a steak with ketchup!


VOICEOVER: Or spaghetti with ketchup!


VOICEOVER: Even chili cheese dogs with ketchup!


VOICEOVER: The Trump magic eraser wipes it all away!

VOICEOVER: And best of all, when you’re done, you can flush it down the toilet like a classified document.


VOICEOVER: The Trump magic eraser. Aaand, he’s getting sued by Mr. Clean.

CYNTHIA GRABER: Normally we would never air anything related to this person on our show, but in this case we’re making an exception, because of ketchup.

NICOLA TWILLEY: This is just the most recent news in ketchup’s illustrious history—definitely not its finest hour, although there have been scandals before. But we still love it here at Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through lens of science and history. I’m Nicola Twilley.

GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber, and as an American, I have been eating ketchup probably nearly as long as I’ve been eating solid foods.

TWILLEY: Whereas I used to think it was an atrocity, one of America’s worst ideas, a category in which there is strong competition. Nowadays, I realize I was completely wrong about ketchup being bad — but was I at least right about it being an American invention?

GRABER: The answer to that actually involves ancient Rome. But how did ketchup eventually become almost a symbol of American-ness around the world?

TWILLEY: And of course, in honor of another dastardly President, Ronald Reagan, and all he did to really screw America: is ketchup actually a vegetable?

GRABER: We will solve that conundrum once and for all. Gastropod is part of the Vox Media Podcast Network, in partnership with Eater.


AMY BENTLEY: Ketchup is a condiment. It’s a very concentrated, tomatoey sauce that goes well with meats and salty potatoes, and is particularly loved by Americans.

BENTLEY: Although it is definitely worldwide at this point. I was just in Ireland and we were in a seafood restaurant on the coast and every table had a bottle of Heinz ketchup on it.

TWILLEY: For all you aliens from outer space who love Gastropod, meet ketchup. It’s a condiment beloved by Earthlings that gets added to everything from pad thai to tater tots.

TWILLEY: And this is Amy Bentley, who you just heard on our Milk of Life episode, although breast milk might actually be the only thing that ketchup doesn’t go with, to be honest.

GRABER: Maybe also chocolate ice cream, but anyway. In addition to being a formula and ketchup expert, Amy is also a professor of food studies at NYU and author of the book Inventing Baby Food.

BENTLEY: It’s something like 93, 95% of Americans have had ketchup in the last year. There is usually a bottle of ketchup in everyone’s refrigerator.

BENTLEY: It’s ubiquitous. It crosses class divides. It crosses regions. It crosses ethnicities.

GRABER: I want to know who those five percent of Americans are who haven’t had ketchup even once in the past year.

TWILLEY: I’m actually married to one of them. But yes, Geoff is weird. In the best possible way.

GRABER: But here’s the even weirder thing—ketchup was not always…ketchup. Not the way we know it.

KEN ALBALA: Ketchup when we think of it is a tomato-based condiment, but for most of its history, it was not that. That’s a pretty recent invention.

ALBALA: For most of the time it was a fermented fish sauce.

TWILLEY: This is Ken Albala, professor of history at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, and a widely published food historian.

GRABER: The word ketchup seems to originally come from a word in a few different languages in Asia that basically refer to fish sauce.

SALLY GRAINGER: It’s fascinating, isn’t it?

GRAINGER: Catsiup is the name of the fish sauce. And catsiup and ketchup are very close together in terms of their sounds. And we think there is a strong connection.

TWILLEY: This is Sally Grainger, she’s a Roman food historian, and yes, the relevance of ancient Rome will become clear very shortly. But the word ketchup doesn’t come from Latin — like Cynthia said, it comes from Asia, although no one is quite sure exactly where.

TWILLEY: The first recorded use in English calls it a quote “high East India sauce.” The second reference in English carefully differentiates it from soy sauce, which quote “comes in Tubbs from Jappan,” and declares that the best ketchup comes from Tonkin, in modern day Vietnam.

GRABER: And that ketchup was fish sauce. But so, what are fish sauce’s origins?

GRAINGER: Well, we find, certainly, in early Sumerian texts, we find references to what we believe is fish sauce. And of course we know fish sauce was being made in the far east as well. Wherever you find an island culture with a high yield of tiny fish in their local waters, then some kind of fish sauce is gonna be made.

GRABER: We promise you haven’t heard the end of ketchup. But to understand it, we need to take what seems like a detour to get to know its ancestor and distant relative.

TWILLEY: Sally says it’s basically impossible to track down the first ever fish sauce because anyone and everyone who lived in a hot country with access to small fish would have made it.

GRAINGER: Well it’s, in terms of preservation. If you are able to go with a small net to the beach and catch a few thousand anchovy and sardine. And it’s 35 degrees outside in the Mediterranean in the summer.

GRAINGER: You either have to consume them straight away on the beach with a barbecue and a party, (LAUGHS) or they start to decay.

GRAINGER: So you have to salt them straight away. And they’re so small. It’s so time consuming to eviscerate each one.

GRABER: Somehow, at some point, the folks too lazy to pull out the insides of each tiny fish found out that there was a real benefit to leaving those guts there.

GRAINGER: Well inside each little fish, each little sardine or anchovy, there is a little packet of viscera, the intestines of the fish. And inside that are enzymes, these are digestive enzymes. And ordinarily they would digest the food that the fish eat.

TWILLEY: But, once you’ve caught the fish and it’s dead, the enzymes have to look around for something else to digest.

GRAINGER: And they digest themselves. IE, the fish.

GRABER: And over time, that digestion breaks down the protein in the fish’s muscles and creates a lovely, tasty amber-colored liquid! What a useful discovery.

TWILLEY: This liquid is a little weird and sludgy at this point, but a spot of cheesecloth or a strainer will soon solve that.

GRAINGER: And what fish sauce is, is that, a clean crystal clear sanitized version of what is decayed—because it is really decay—Decayed fish.

GRABER: Yum! And while probably everyone who lived on the shore in a hot climate might have discovered this sauce made from decayed fish, in Europe, the first to record the process were the Greeks.

GRAINGER: We only actually understand that the Greeks were doing it because they write about it. And they are a fully literate society amongst the manufacturers of this kind of sauce. And it became what’s called a very tasty seasoning,

TWILLEY: Tasty for sure, but not ketchup as we know it.

GRABER: Nope, it would still take a while to become the gloopy red sauce I pour on my veggie burger. First, fish sauce spread from the Greeks to the Romans, and it exploded from there.

TWILLEY: The Ancient Greeks had built their entire cuisine around this tasty fish sauce, which they called garos. And they were considered real gourmets by neighboring civilizations — they were like the French of their day.

TWILLEY: So when this upstart new Roman empire gets going in what’s now Italy, they want to eat aspirationally, which means, eating like the Ancient Greeks.

GRAINGER: And the Romans take it on board, embrace it fully, and really go for mass production.

GRABER: Yep, the Romans took fish sauce public. They called it garum, and it was so critical to Romans that soldiers took it with them everywhere they went, and that was basically almost everywhere in Europe and North Africa and parts of the Middle East.

GRAINGER: It arrived through the army. And it spread amongst the native populations.

GRAINGER: Wherever you find, a high concentration of Romanized people, you will always find plenty of fish sauce vessels.

TWILLEY: Before the Romans arrived, people in northern Europe had made do with seasoning their grains and lentils with salt. Fish sauce was a revelation.

GRAINGER: It’s a magical ingredient. It balances. When you add fish sauce, something… the umami, pushes that sweetness away and brings out the flavor of the other spices and the herbs.

GRAINGER: You get a, an exquisite balance in the mouth.

GRABER: Fish sauce isn’t just salty, it also has a lovely umami richness. There’s a little bit of sweetness. It gives dishes a depth that they don’t have without it, and if you just add a little, it doesn’t dominate. It really is magic.

TWILLEY: And it wasn’t just something that could perk up the monotonous diet of the poor. Fish sauce was popular with all social classes. No debauched Roman banquet would be complete without it.

GRABER: And because all the locals where the Roman armies showed up also quickly adopted fish sauce as their own, the Romans took advantage of that growing market. They made fish sauce at an industrial scale.

GRAINGER: It’s phenomenal, the scale of it. In Southern Spain, along that coast from Cadiz to Cartagena, there are fish sauce factories every few miles. And they have huge capacity. Long, long rows of tanks, which can produce thousands of gallons of fish sauce at any one time.

TWILLEY: Reading about this proto ketchup is one thing. But Sally wanted to taste it.

GRAINGER: In these recipes it states basically take your fish, mix it with salt, leave it to ferment. When it’s ready, you put a wicker basket into the tank and the sauce flows into the basket and you scoop it out.

GRAINGER: So it seemed quite simple a procedure really. I bought about 50 kilos of fish, quite a lot of fish. And I have fish tanks, about 10 fish tanks. And a large greenhouse in the bottom of my garden. And a lot of salt. And I watched the fish dissolve.

GRABER: Sally did a real scientific experiment, she tried different fish, she tried different kinds of salt, she tried different amounts of salt, or amounts of liquid, she varied the temperature and the fermentation time.

GRAINGER: At the beginning of this process, there was a fear that my neighbors would complain, but they didn’t. There was no bad smell at all.

GRAINGER: And the fish sauce I made was exceptionally high quality.

GRABER: And then she experimented in the kitchen.

GRAINGER: And it is, I’ve made lots of different dishes to experiment with fish sauce. And one of the best for this is a sweet omelette.

TWILLEY: This sweet omelette is kind of a weird sounding dish — it’s an Ancient Roman recipe that’s made with eggs, dessert wine, pears, and honey but also black pepper and cumin. And the result is kind of like a custard but also solid like a frittata. Possibly an acquired taste.

GRAINGER: So if you make this lovely dish with salt. It’s okay. It works. You know, you bring out some, some extra flavors. If you make it with fish sauce, it is just amazing. And if you make it with nothing, it’s bland. Despite all those wonderful ingredients.

GRAINGER: And I make this dish and I offer it to children. Of course they are the perfect experimenters, because they have no preconceptions about what fish sauce is. But they always choose the one with fish sauce. Until you tell them. And then they change their mind.

GRAINGER: Because you don’t put fish in a desert and rightly so, you shouldn’t, but it works.

GRABER: Sally’s tried adding her homemade fish sauce to more modern savory dishes, too. And she says you can try this at home, with the store-bought variety.

GRAINGER: Do a simple thing like a Bolognese sauce. A Bolognese sauce is great with a bit of anchovy essence in it. It works really well. So make it with anchovy essence, make it without, and taste them separately. And you’ll certainly see what it does.

GRAINGER: Don’t put too much in because too much fish sauce is really bad. You get too much fish and you… then it’s not good. So you’ve got to be careful. Add it a spoon at a time.

TWILLEY: I’m delighted to say I’m ahead of the curve here—I usually add anchovies to all my ragus and stews. But cooking tips aside, how on earth does this ancient roman fish sauce go on to become ketchup?

GRABER: Well, first we have to wait more than a thousand years and then also go back to Asia. That’s coming up, after the break.


TWILLEY: So, the next stop on fish sauce’s twisted path to becoming ketchup involves fish sauce disappearing. After all, these days, when you think of European cuisine, you don’t necessarily think of fish sauce. So how did it go from being ubiquitous and essential to not?

GRAINGER: It’s funny. It probably didn’t really fall out totally. It’s just that it became hidden and it went back to being something that fishing communities did on a very small scale. And there wasn’t a market for it. And nobody talked about it or wrote about it.

GRABER: And the reason for that? Well, it pretty much had to do with the fall of the Roman empire. Once the bureaucracy disappeared from most of the continent, and the army retreated, locals just couldn’t get their daily fish sauce anymore.

GRAINGER: It required industrial management. It required the army to ship it. It required Roman tradesmen to invest in its production.

GRAINGER: And once it ceased to be readily available, people tried to make it themselves for quite a while. But I think over time, yes, they reverted to using salt. And it is not easy to understand. There are no voices. Nobody writes about this in detail, such that we can really understand it.

TWILLEY: Fortunately, the magic of fish sauce — the way it creates that balance of flavors and brings out the essence of whatever you’re cooking — that never fell out of fashion in Asia.

CUONG PHAM: So my mom told me, or some other home cook in Vietnam, told me, they said, yeah, fish sauce is kind of wake up the flavor of whatever that it touch. So if you cook it with beef, you get the beef flavor. You cook with chicken, you get the chicken flavor.

GRABER: Cuong Pham is the founder of Red Boat Fish sauce, and he and his family also just released a new fish sauce cookbook.

TWILLEY: Sally told us there are some differences between the ancient Roman fish sauce production technique and traditional Asian fish sauces. The biggest things are that Asian fish sauces typically use more salt, and they typically ferment the sauce for longer, in tanks that are closed rather than open to the air.

GRABER: This Asian fish sauce is actually the missing link between fish sauce and ketchup. So Cuong grew up in Vietnam. As a kid and as a young adult, all he knew about fish sauce was that he really loved his mom’s cooking, and she used fish sauce in her dishes.

TWILLEY: Then Cuong and some of his siblings came to the US and of course they tried to cook the dishes his mother used to make.

PHAM: The food didn’t come out right. And I thought like, because I’m not a good cook or I’m not following the recipes or whatever,

TWILLEY: But then Cuong went back to Vietnam for work, and while he was there, he bought a bottle of traditional fish sauce.

PHAM: We picked up the fish sauce, we taste the fish sauce and… Boom, it’s just like, oh my gosh, why things are tasting so different here? Why is it so good?

GRABER: It turns out that the fish sauce that’s most readily available in the US is not quite the same as the traditional ones he grew up with. So Cuong ended up buying a fish sauce factory and making and importing it himself.

PHAM: Making fish sauce is easy, making fish sauce traditional methods and keep it traditional is require a lot of discipline. Paying attention to details. That’s the first thing to get the fish sauce right.

PHAM: It took me four years to get it finally get to a batch that is acceptable.

PHAM: And that’s when that’s when we bring the first batch in, the very small batch and people like it. And they said, oh my gosh, you know, this is what we want.

TWILLEY: Cuong says that the first thing that makes his sauce different is he uses good anchovies — you need five pounds of these local black anchovies to make one bottle of Red Boat fish sauce.

GRABER: The second thing that’s different is that the fish are salted immediately when the fishermen catch them. They don’t wait until they bring them back to shore, which is what a lot do for industrial sauce. If you wait, the little oily fish have already started to go bad.

PHAM: And then we use wooden barrels.

PHAM: Wooden barrel when we loaded the fish in there, it’s going to stay there for 12 months. And the reason 12 months is good and that’s the optimal time when the fish is fully fermented, meaning the enzyme is, you know, working all its thing.

TWILLEY: And the end result is, well, magical.

PHAM: So it, the salt hits you. And then the complexity of it is the after taste, right. If you leave it long enough, then you can see the sweetness come out on your throat.

TWILLEY: Like Sally, Cuong says that sweetness means that fish sauce is actually also great in desserts. And in his new book, he has lots of recipes for savory traditional dishes but also for such delights as fish sauce-infused chex mix and mochi cakes.

GRABER: I use fish sauce frequently when I cook. A lot of us keep it around in our kitchen today. But my mom never had fish sauce in her pantry when I was growing up. These days, Asian fish sauce feels like a pretty new arrival.

TWILLEY: But that’s not actually true. Fish sauce just went away from Western kitchens for a little bit. So what happened was after the fall of the Roman empire, fish sauce staged its first disappearance from Europe. And then it made a comeback in the 1700s.

TWILLEY: By then, Asian fish sauces were being imported by European merchants who were trading with the Far East, and once again, people loved them. Especially the Brits.

GRABER: And they called that fish sauce ketchup, because that’s something like what it was being called in some regions of Asia. Finally we are back to ketchup—though still not the kind we know and love today.

GRABER: The Brits at the time weren’t totally sure what to do with this fish sauce called ketchup, but they quickly figured it out.

ALBALA: They always think, well, this is a brown thing. So they use it kind of in the way that stock would pick up a dish.

ALBALA: If you’re making a ragu, for example, they would add a little bit of this, ketchup, in order to bring out the taste.

TWILLEY: Just like garum, a thousand years before. But just as fish sauce is making everything taste better once again, disaster strikes. The Dutch, who have monopolized the ketchup trade — they get kicked out of their Asian trading hub.

ALBALA: When the trade starts to dry up, when the Dutch stop exporting it. Europeans get these all confused. And they will use basically anything in thin dark umami rich fermented sauce. They’ll put anything in it and call it ketchup.

TWILLEY: The British were scrambling — suddenly this saucy deliciousness that had been making their boring roast meat more exciting was gone. So they tried to figure out how to make a knock off version themselves.

ALBALA: And they kind of know that some ketchups have fish in them. So they put anchovies in. And they know that it’s got sourness. So they use vinegar or tamarind sometimes, and they throw in spices.

ALBALA: And so the sauces that are sort of the ancestors or the descendants rather of the direct ancestor of ketchup would be something like Worcestershire sauce. That’s, that’s sort of their attempt to replicate what would’ve come in as ketchup.

ALBALA: And even HP sauce, you know, the kind of brown sauce that is universal in Britain is, that’s closer to what ketchup would’ve been like in the past.

GRABER: And the Brits didn’t stop with a Worcestershire-like sauce. They went wild making all sorts of ketchups out of almost everything you can imagine.

ALBALA: All the cookbooks from that middle of the 18th century use ketchup or will tell you how to make a substitute ketchup.

ALBALA: And they’re all anchovy, spices, salt, vinegar, sometimes mushrooms, sometimes oysters or mussels are used in it.

ALBALA: So you’ll find walnut ketchup, which has made of fermented green walnuts, really delicious stuff.

ALBALA: There’s dozens upon dozens of different types of ketchup. Um. That just becomes an all, catchall phrase for any brown sauce.

TWILLEY: Some of these knock offs sound pretty good — I’m definitely down for a savoury mushroom or green walnut sauce. But they do have a key flavor difference from the original ketchup — fish sauce — because the sour note is different.

ALBALA: The fascinating and ironic part about it is that ketchup in Asia is always means a fermented sauce.

ALBALA: When it gets to Europe and especially Britain, vinegar replaces that. And if you add vinegar to anything, it stops the fermentation.

ALBALA: So, so modern ketchup from that point on—and in fact, even the 18th century British ketchups, they’re not fermented, they’re aged, and that changes the flavor.

GRABER: Still sounds tasty, I do often add vinegar to my dishes, but these are definitely not the same thing as fish sauce.

TWILLEY: But nonetheless, these knock offs were super popular, especially in England. And then obviously because the US was a British colony, early settlers were familiar with ketchup. It was a brown spicy umami condiment they all loved. And they made their own versions in their new homeland.

GRABER: And eventually someone, somewhere, decided you know what, green walnuts are great, but what would be really awesome is … tomatoes!

ALBALA: We don’t know who first put tomatoes in, but it’s almost certainly the beginning of the 19th century. And that’s when recipes start showing up in cookbooks.

GRABER: This makes sense, tomatoes are originally from the Americas. South and Central america in particular. And tomatoes have a really awesome umami note to them. They have really high levels of glutamate, and that’s the key umami flavor.

TWILLEY: The first known tomato ketchup recipe was published by James Mease, a well known Philadelphia scientist, horticulturist, and physician. In 1812, he wrote that quote “Love Apples” make “a fine catsup.”

GRABER: We’ve already said that ketchups were super popular, but also tomatoes were really popular, so this combination of tomatoes and ketchup caught on really quickly.

GRABER: By 1829 a New Englander named Lydia Child, she was an anti-slavery and Native American and women’s rights campaigner, she also happened to say that the best sort of ketchup was made from tomatoes.

TWILLEY: Lydia was right about a lot of things. But these early tomato ketchups, they were also not anything like the stuff you’re going to put on your burger and fries probably quite soon after listening to this episode.

ALBALA: The first ketchups would’ve been far more liquid, and they’re pourable, and they’re in a bottle and they’re not really that shelf stable.

ALBALA: And remember there’s no refrigeration. So they’re probably very salty also.

ALBALA: And it would be something that you’d have to use fairly quickly.

ALBALA: So, I think if you were to pour out something like that, you’d say this kind of reminds me of Worcestershire sauce or something like that. Cause so it’s a much, much spicier profile. But not this the same sort of sweet sour balance that we get. And not, certainly not the thickness that we get in the modern ketchup.

GRABER: And people at the time were not putting this early tomato ketchup on burger and fries either.

ALBALA: Well, in the early 19th century, they didn’t have hamburgers and French fries. That’s one thing. But they would definitely been pouring it on their roast. Yeah. And putting it in their soup and adding it to a pie recipe.

TWILLEY: Savory pies, mind you. Americans were not quite as avant garde as the Ancient Romans with their fish sauce sweet omelette.

GRABER: But Americans did create something new and exciting, and that was the thick, goopy, sweet ketchup we know and love today. That story is coming up after the break.


VOICEOVER: Heinz ketchup. Think how good it’s gonna taste when it finally gets there.

CARLY SIMONS: (Singing) Anticipation… anticipaaaation… is making me wait.

VOICEOVER: It’s slow good.

CARLY SIMONS: (Singing) It’s keeping me wa-ai-ai-ai-ting.

TWILLEY: We made you wait, but it’s finally time to meet the real American hero in our ketchup saga: Henry J. Heinz. He was the son of German immigrants and by the age of 25 he had founded a company with a friend, Clarence. They planned to get in on the hot new market for canned and bottled foods.

GRABER: As we’ve talked about many times on Gastropod before, this technology was revolutionary, it really took off in America after the Civil War. And it’s what made commercial ketchup possible. People started to buy ketchup in the store rather than make it at home.

TWILLEY: At first, Heinz’s new company didn’t bottle ketchup — he actually started out with horseradish, followed by sauerkraut and pickles.

ALBALA: Yeah, Heinz did all sorts of things. They would bottle anything. They were the big baby food manufacturer, actually, to start with.

ALBALA: But any vegetable, any condiment. They did many, many different products. Not 57. In fact, that 57 was just a random number that he chose. Because he thought it was lucky. He thought seven was lucky and his wife liked the number. So there’s never been 57 varieties.

ALBALA: But they were mostly doing sauces of various kinds. Ketchup was sort of a late comer.

GRABER: When he finally turned to ketchup, Heinz made a bunch of different kinds, based on a bunch of different recipes. One had cloves and pepper and cinnamon and allspice, another had horseradish and mustard seed and would have been spicier.

GRABER: A third had salt and vinegar and a slippery elm mix, which apparently came from the fragrant, sticky inner bark of a type of elm tree.

TWILLEY: Right away, Heinz ketchups were popular. Early on, he had patented the groovy octagonal shaped bottle we still know and love, which helped his product stand out. But Heinz’s real powerplay for global domination was a health pitch.

ALBALA: What distinguished them ultimately was that they decided not to use sodium benzoate as a preservative.

GRABER: We made a whole episode about what was going on in the early 1900s, at the time food was often super adulterated and not safe.

GRABER: Sometimes even the preservatives that companies used to make food last longer also weren’t so great. One that people were worried about was sodium benzoate.

TWILLEY: And the U.S. government, in the form of Harvey Washington Wiley and his crew of guinea pigs, aka the poison squad — they were intent on cleaning up the American food supply and ridding it of these dodgy preservatives. And their crusade culminated in the Pure Food Act of 1906.

ALBALA: Heinz was very smart in that he saw the fear on the horizon and saw that the, you know, pure food act was gonna come out and he jumped on that bandwagon immediately and pointed the finger at every other manufacturer and said, they’re, they’re giving you sodium benzoate. And you know that’s bad for you, everyone.

ALBALA: We don’t actually know whether it is bad for you or not, but it’s. But the perception that Heinz was pure and better for you, was part of the whole sales pitch.

GRABER: And they pitched it. They hadn’t really bothered to advertise before, but right after the Pure Food act passed and in the next few years, they advertised their preservative-free ketchup extensively all over the country, and the public bought it. Literally.

TWILLEY: Heinz ketchup was more expensive. The company made a big deal in the ads about paying more for quality tomatoes. But using whole ripe tomatoes rather than the rejects from the canning industry and removing preservatives — those weren’t the only changes Heinz made to his ingredients list.

ALBALA: When you take out the preservatives, you have to change a couple of things.

ALBALA: You have to add more things that will prevent bacterial action. So more salt, a lot more vinegar. So we think of ketchup as really being, it’s a sour kind of flavor, but you have to balance that sourness with the sugar thereafter.

ALBALA: It’s when you up the vinegar in it that you have to up the sugar to balance that off, otherwise it would be ridiculously sour.

ALBALA: And most importantly is, you’ve got to concentrate it down. So the thickness of ketchup I think is really the result of having to change that formula. To be able to make it shelf stable without the sodium benzoate.

GRABER: All these things are key for the early preservative-free ketchup, back in the days when not everyone had a refrigerator. Salt is a preservative. Vinegar is a preservative. Sugar is too. And when you take water out to make something more concentrated, that also helps keep it from spoiling.

TWILLEY: And the result is a thick, gloopy, sweet, salty, tangy long lived sauce … aka ketchup! For the first time in its long and confusing history, ketchup was thick.

ALBALA: And you know, the funny thing is that the bottling, they made it a selling point. If you can think of like the weakest part of the whole product was you had to stand there with the bottle, tapping it and shaking it for it to come out.

ALBALA: That’s, that’s the worst way to sell a whole lot of ketchup. Right? Cause you have to, you remember, they, they have that song: (sings) anticipation.

CARLY SIMONS: (Singing) Anticipation… anticipaaaation… is making me wait…

GIRL: Sorry you had to wait!


VOICEOVER: Thick, rich Heinz ketchup. The taste that’s worth the wait!

ALBALA: And, and you. You know, wait for the ketchup to come out.

ALBALA: Those bottles are gone. You know, it’s now all plastic squeezy bottles, which is lighter. And of course, you know, not having glass is great.

ALBALA: But that was sort of funny, that they put it in that bottle and the thickness was their selling point, even though it made people wait.

GRABER: When I was a kid, before there were squeeze bottles, everyone thought that the way to get the thick ketchup to come out of the narrow bottle opening was to tap the number 57 embossed on the bottle with, say, your knife. Without breaking the glass of course.

ALBALA: Tapping the 57 was an urban myth. It didn’t work.

ALBALA: Some people would whap the bottom of the bottle. Some people would stick a chopstick in there to get it out. It was impossible.

GRABER: Not completely impossible—it just came out on its own schedule. It took a while, and usually some shaking and some banging on the bottom of the bottle, but we always got that ketchup out, sometimes a little more than we’d bargained for.

GRABER: But that was kind of okay, because what we were eating had changed. Originally ketchup had been an ingredient, but in the 1900s and onward it came into its own as a condiment to match our new diet of hamburgers and french fries. And more.

ALBALA: Yeah. It, ketchup goes on everything. You know, they billed it as a universal condiment. And obviously hamburgers. Even hot dogs, even though I think that’s a shame, it’s the thing to do to hot, to a hot dog.

ALBALA: Nowadays we don’t use it as often as a cooking ingredient as they used to in the past. Now we just glob it on the plate and put it, you know, with anything.

TWILLEY: All of this—the ads, the unique sugary gloopy tangy flavor profile, the rise of burgers and fries—all of this combined to make Heinz tomato ketchup into an unstoppable juggernaut.

VOICEOVER: When the look on the face is happy, the name on the bottle must be Heinz ketchup!

VOICEOVER: The red magic that puts more fun into every day eating.

VOICEOVER: Because no other ketchup tastes like Heinz…

GRABER: Everything seemed perfect. But then, ketchup got caught up in a scandal. The year was 1981.

RICK SPRINGFIELD: (singing) You know I wish that I had Jessie’s Girl! I wish that I had Jessie’s Girl…

DAN RATHER: The Archbishop of Canterbury called the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer today: the stuff of fairy tales.

LIONEL RICHIE & DIANA ROSS: (singing) You will always be… my endless love.

GRABER: The music was great, the news was full of things that I’m still shocked all happened the same year.

VEEJAY: This is it. Welcome to MTV music television, the world’s first 24 hour stereo video music channel.

KIM CARNES: (singing) Step outside, she’s got… Bette Davis eyes.

JOHN MCENROE: Look, you can’t be serious, man. You CANNOT BE SERIOUS. That ball was on the line!

NASA ANNOUNCER: T-minus 10…9…8…7…6…5…4… we’ve gone for main engine start, we have main engine start.

MAN: Come on baby. Come on baby.

NASA ANNOUNCER: Launch of America’s first space shuttle.


TWILLEY: Cynthia, can we just become an 1981 tribute show? Those were really the days.

GRABER: I’m in. But the other big news of 1981 was America’s ketchup scandal.

BENTLEY: 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected as president. And part of his mandate was to slash the federal budget and return money to the states in the form of block grants that they would then be able to spend as they wished.

BENTLEY: Of course defense budget wasn’t slashed, but almost every other department budget was spot slashed by as much as one third.

BENTLEY: And this included the USDA, which was in charge of the national school lunch program. And government officials in the matter of a few weeks were told to reduce the budget by a third while still maintaining proper nutrition for students’ school lunch.

BENTLEY: Which is almost an impossibility, but they tried.

TWILLEY: The challenge was that school lunches were legally required to have two servings of fruit and vegetables.

GRABER: Fruit and vegetables were the most expensive part of the meal, so that’s where they looked to cut. Folks at the USDA suggested that pickle relish could be counted as a vegetable, and also tomato concentrate. One tablespoon would equal one fruit and vegetable serving.

BENTLEY: This is where the controversy ensues. They don’t use the word ketchup, they use the word tomato concentrate. But because they proposed that pickle relish, a relish, a condiment, be able to be counted as a vegetable, there was very, very quick inference that that tablespoon of tomato concentrate was ketchup. Or could be interpreted as ketchup.

BENTLEY: Thus the Reagan administration was proposing that ketchup be counted as one of the two vegetables that students were required to be served in their school lunches.

BENTLEY: This caused a huge controversy and immediately picked up by Congress, by watchdog groups, by nonprofits.

BENTLEY: And pretty much everyone was horrified that the Reagan administration would be proposing that ketchup be counted as a vegetable.

TWILLEY: The media had a field day with this story.

REPORTER: Mr. President. The style of your administration is being called “millionaires on parade.”

REPORTER: Do you feel that you are being sensitive enough to the symbolism of Republican mink coats, limousines, thousand-dollar-a-plate china at the White House, when ghetto kids are being told they can eat ketchup as a vegetable?

TWILLEY: Even Heinz couldn’t get behind counting ketchup as a vegetable.

BENTLEY: Well, John Heinz, who was a Republican, who was a Senator from Pennsylvania and the member of the Heinz family was pretty much up in arms. And he reported from the Senate floor, I know what ketchup is, ketchup is not a vegetable. This is unacceptable.

GRABER: And of course with all that pressure, the government had to react.

BENTLEY: Well, there was so much bad press and uproar, from all corners of the country that the Reagan administration, after about three weeks of this brouhaha, just withdrew these guidelines, the proposed guidelines.

BENTLEY: And so they were back to square one. They eventually went to some other kinds of cost saving measures, something called offer versus serve.

BENTLEY: So they still had to serve five elements. But students only had to choose three of them. And that was seen as a way to save money.

TWILLEY: Amazingly, astoundingly, unpredictably, many children declined their serving of mushy peas or boiled carrots, which meant that the USDA could in fact spend less on school lunch and Reagan could spend more on weaponry and tax breaks for the rich.

TWILLEY: And, happily, ketchup remained a condiment, at least for the time being.

GRABER: But this wasn’t the end of the tomato condiment as a vegetable debate. In 1998, the USDA made salsa a vegetable—

BENTLEY: Of course this made the USDA officials very nervous to do this, and they were very defensive and were insistent that salsa was more like a salad. It’s not like ketchup.

BENTLEY: It’s still a condiment, but I think you can make an argument that, you know, some chopped salsa with tomatoes, onions, peppers, you know, has some more nutritional value than say very, very concentrated ketchup.

TWILLEY: Speaking of concentrate, these days, tomato concentrate does now count as a vegetable.

BENTLEY: Well, it does, because it’s used on pizza, and there is a certain amount that needs to be on, say a slice of pizza or in pasta, a pasta dish, to count as a vegetable.

BENTLEY: But the pizza manufacturers who supply school lunches with extraordinary amounts of pizza are very keen to make sure that this is still counted as a vegetable, which keeps them in business.

GRABER: Because remember students have to be served a vegetable, even if it’s in pizza sauce form. In fact, more than three-quarters of all tomato consumption in the US comes in the form of sauce and ketchup. That’s apparently how Americans prefer their tomatoes.

TWILLEY: And not just Americans these days. Ketchup has glooped its way into the hearts and mouths of people the world over.

ALBALA: And I think in much of the world, they think of it as an American condiment. But every place has its own version of it.

ALBALA: The one that I really love is in the Philippines. They have ketchup made with bananas. And it looks like ketchup and you taste it and you think this is ketchup, but there’s something else very odd going on in it. It’s delicious and sweeter.

ALBALA: But you know, as a condiment, it’s everywhere, you know, in bottles, in little packets and, you know, anywhere you find so-called American food, hamburgers and French fries and fast food, ketchup has to be there.

GRABER: But as ubiquitous as it is, one thing you might notice in the store is that while there are a lot of brands to choose from, you mostly get the same thing in every bottle.

WOMEN: (singing) Doo doo doo doo

BOY: Where is my ketchup?

WOMEN: (singing) My old Heinz ketchup. Doo, doo doo doo

VOICEOVER: Some things you change. Some things you don’t.

BOY: (in a deeper voice) Where is my ketchup?

VOICEOVER: Heinz ketchup. Every time.

ALBALA: So the ketchup is the opposite of almost all products you see in the supermarket.

ALBALA: If you look at tomato sauces, you’ll find several hundred varieties. One has peppers. One is the, you know, it’s the same company spinning out various versions of their same basic sauce.

ALBALA: Ketchup is exactly the one exception to the rule in marketing that you wanna make as many products as you can with slight variations so that a customer will come in and say, oh, I like this one and buy it.

ALBALA: There’s only one ketchup.

TWILLEY: And that’s because actually, it’s kind of perfect. Snobs may look down on it, but ketchup is a gastronomic marvel. In a way, it’s what was missing in European cuisine.

ALBALA: There was a time when European food was what I would call polysavory, meaning that it was typical to mix sour and sweet and spicy and savory ingredients together.

GRABER: That changed in Europe with the rise of French cuisine around the 1600s, the idea was that the food itself as a pure thing had to be the star, roasts tasted like roasts, and sweets were sent to the back of the line for dessert. And there weren’t a lot of spices.

ALBALA: So you’d want like a gravy that’s based on the main ingredient, you know, stock made into a chicken sauce or a beef, you know, concentrated, added to beef.

ALBALA: But it means that it tends to be very one note, I think. I think your taste buds also get very bored with it very quickly because you’re only getting this… savory, and a little salt, and something else. You have to wait till the end of the meal to get your sweetness and there’s no sourness pronounced.

ALBALA: And I think that that European cuisine is kind of missing something fundamental about what makes our taste buds happy is the variety, is the going back and forth between having a savory note and a sweet note and a sour note and a spicy note. And playing off of each other in that way makes your taste buds excited.

ALBALA: And so I think ketchup provides in European cuisine or, and by extension, you know, British and American cuisine, this very complex flavoring that would’ve been part of cuisine in Europe, at least going all the way back to ancient times.

TWILLEY: Ketchup is the missing piece of the puzzle.

ALBALA: And I think ketchup kind of is the ideal condiment for that very reason. Is, is that it’s supplying what we have inadvertently lost in Western cooking, is that really complex jumble of flavors.


GRABER: Thanks this episode to Ken Albala, Sally Grainger, Amy Bentley, and Cuong Pham. We have links to their books, articles, and fish sauce on our website,

TWILLEY: And of course a huge thanks to our all star producer, Claudia Geib, although I am not happy with her for getting Jessie’s Girl stuck in my head for the foreseeable future. Sorry about that. We’ll be back in your feeds in two weeks.

GRABER: And if you made it through the credits, you get the reward of a final bit of ketchup fun…

PETER SAGAL: Here is your first limerick.

BILL KURTIS: It’s a snack a lost bet makes you snatch up. Though some frozen foods might be a match up.

KURTIS: Or as fast food surprise, that can cool down hot fries. It’s a popsicle tasting like…

CALLER: …Ketchup?

SAGAL: Yes! Ketchup!

SAGAL: If you can’t decide between having a hot dog and having dessert, don’t bother. With French’s new French-sicle ketchup popsicle, you can have the worst of both worlds.

SAGAL: It’s perfect for anyone nostalgic for that childhood treat of in the winter eating icicles with condiments…

WOMAN: Ewwww!