Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Ketchup - America's Condiment

BLUE LABEL KETCHUP  bottle, made 1930
Ketchup is 23% sugar by weight. One tablespoon contains 7% of the recommended limit for sodium (salt), and little else in the way of nutrients.

The impetus for this week's column was finding an intact glass bottle while doing a bit of trail clean-up in Acton. The bottle in question is a bit over nine inches tall, tapering from a three inch wide base to a 1.25 inch top. The bottle is twelve-sided from the bottom to about two-thirds up, then round. There is no remnant label, nor embossed branding on the side, but the bottom has BLUE LABEL KETCHUP embossed into the glass, along with the Diamond-O-I symbol of the bottle maker, Owens-Illinois Glass Company. These markings date it to 86 years old.

In the late 1800s there were scores of ketchup making companies. Many were primarily tomato and tomato sauce canneries. Waste scraps and underripe tomatoes were crushed, cooked with salt, spices, some vinegar and sugar, then sieved into bottles and sold as ketchup. This was a thinner, less sweet product than we are used to now (25% sugar). Sodium benzoate was added as a preservative.

The Blue Label brand was made by Curtice Brothers Co., Rochester, NY. Simeon and Edgar Curtice started out with a produce store. In 1868 they started canning surplus fruits and vegetables. By 1900 they were operating one of the largest ketchup, produce and preserves companies in the eastern half of the country, with billboard and magazine advertising for ketchup and also Blue Label Soup (20 varieties). At its peak the company was contracting to buy produce from 8,000 acres of farmland and orchards, and employed 2,500 people. The Curtice family's involvement ended with Edgar's death in 1920. The company continued as Curtice-Burns Foods.

In the ketchup market, Curtice lost out to Heinz by taking the wrong side on the benzoate debate. In that era, increased industrialization of food production led to rampant unsafe practices and fraud in packaged foods. A consumer backlash known as the Pure Foods Movement lead finally to the passage in 1906 of the U.S. Pure Food and Drug Act, the predecessor of today's Food and Drug Administration. One catalyst was the publication of Upton Sinclair's book, The Jungle, a vivid description of the plight of immigrant workers in the meat packing industry. Meant to be a Socialist cry for labor justice, Sinclair later complained that “I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident hit its stomach.” 

Blue Label Ketchup bottle, made 1930.
9" tall. Top threaded for screw-cap.
Sodium benzoate is an antibacterial and antifungal preservative for acidic foods. It's use was common at the dawn of the twentieth century with foods such as pickles, sauerkraut and ketchup.

Dr. Harvey W. Wiley, chief chemist in the Department of Agriculture, was strongly opposed to what he considered unsafe preservatives in foods, which at that time included benzoate, formaldehyde, sulfites and others. The Heinz Company had already been experimenting for years with processes of making ketchup without preservatives. Curtice Brothers argued that there was a safe level for benzoate. New laws required that preservatives be listed on the label. Heinz pounced, by advertising its ketchup was without preservatives, and doubled down by offering a money-back guarantee for spoiled product. What's ironic about this is that there is a safe level for sodium benzoate. To this day it is an allowed food preservative for pickles and other acidic foods at one-tenth of one percent, which is what Curtice was using back then.

Back to the bottle. The Owens and Illinois glass companies merged in late 1929. The Diamond-O-I symbol post-dates the merger. An "0" to the right of the company symbol indicates the bottle was made in 1930, as starting with 1940 the company used two digits to signify year. By then, Curtice Brothers had converted to making ketchup without benzoate, but it was too late to regain market share.

This close-up of another Owens-Illinois
bottle shows the O superimposed over
the diamond, with an I in the center.
The number to the left indicates
which factory; to the right, the year.
Interestingly, the name Blue Label has been resurrected as Camden's BLUE LABEL CATSUP, a boutique brand out of Portland, Oregon. Much more confusingly, Curtice Brothers Company is the name of a 2015 start-up ketchup company based in Europe featuring "Organic Tomato Ketchup made in Tuscany." Although the website mentions the original Curtice Brothers, there is no connection. No one is named Curtice, the six men who started it are not brothers, and the recipe is not the original Curtice recipe. They just like the name.

Ketchup or catsup? Both spellings were used by nineteenth century companies, but Heinz and Curtice preferred "ketchup," so that became the preferred version. For people who remember glass bottles, ketchup is a thixotropic liquid, meaning viscous at rest but much thinner once it starts flowing. Back in the day when glass bottles of ketchup were on restaurant tables, one waitstaff chore after closing was to "marry the ketchup," meaning pouring the dregs of near-empty bottles into other partially used bottles to create full bottles. Eeeewww!

I do not put ketchup on hotdogs, an opinion I share with President Barack Obama ("...not acceptable past the age of eight.") and also Clint Eastwood's character in Dirty Harry: "Nobody, I mean nobody, puts ketchup on a hotdog."

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