1890s Pittsburgh was not just the province of robber barons and destination for immigrant labor; it was a creative space for food as well. What was happening in Pittsburgh would literally change the tastes of a nation, revolutionize marketing and establish a standard for "pure" food that can be traced forward to the organic and "whole foods" movement of today.
What's more, you can re-create a bit of that history in your own kitchen.
Across the Allegheny River from the old Heinz factory in Pittsburgh, records of the company's earliest days are housed in a renovated seven-story red-brick ice warehouse from the 1800s located in the city's Strip District.
Company ledgers, huge books full of product labels, hand-written memos to plant managers, glass plate negatives, promotional postcards, and guides for salesmen fill more than 200 boxes in the Sen. John Heinz History Center archives.
One white box, Number 34 of the H.J. Heinz Company Records collection, contains a ledger of the bushels of tomatoes, cucumbers and other vegetables purchased from local farmers between 1895 and 1902, detailed minutes of plant managers' meetings in which they discuss challenges of production, and a hardbound notebook with decorative red spine, dated 1895.
The book contains the "receipts & processes now in use by our firm" - the official company recipes, including the recipe for the ketchup that first filled Heinz's now-iconic patented octagon bottle: "Keystone Ketchup (Octagon Style)."
Today, that octagon bottle alone — empty and without label — can be recognized immediately as "ketchup," making it one the most successful product packages in history. But, in 1895 it was still new; Heinz had received a patent for the bottles only five years earlier, and they appeared as a "new style" — with screw tops — in sales catalogs in 1893.
Heinz filled them with his very best ketchup.
Heinz was a relative newcomer to ketchup, which — as an imitation fish sauce — had been around in Europe since the 1500s, but which, transformed into a tomato sauce, was becoming an American staple. It had been sold commercially in bottles for nearly 40 years before Heinz entered the market. Unlike many commercial producers who made ketchup as a way to use the trimmings, peels and slop left over from processing tomatoes for other purposes, Heinz focused on making ketchup as a primary product, and by the 1890s was fast becoming one of the largest producers.
The company was marketing four different ketchups at the time, different grades with corresponding prices. You couldn't buy the lowest — "Duquesne" — grade in anything but bulk: from a gallon jug of it up to a 45-gallon whiskey barrel full — for what would now be roughly $6.89 a gallon.
That's not much more expensive than what Heinz charged for just 12 oz. of the "Octagon Style" — about $4.25 in today's money — which couldn't be purchased in any container larger than a pint and a half.
What made the "Octagon Style" special appears to be a higher quality tomato base and more expensive spicing. A recipe for "Tomatoe Catsup - No. 7 bottle" in the same recipe book notes: "This Catsup is boiled in the same manner as the other Ketchups, only that the ingredients differ in quantity and quality." That recipe calls for tomato pulp "either all or partly made from peelings," more onion, less spice such as cinnamon, and clove oil instead of actual cloves. The recipe for bulk ketchup — presumably the Duquesne style — calls for "thin pulp" and relies almost entirely on spice oils.
The terms "catsup" and "ketchup" — although they seem originally to have been interchangeable in the United States — by this time were used by Heinz to connote variations in quality. In England the word seems consistently to have been spelled with a "k," and there's some evidence that English imports of walnut and mushroom ketchup, which appeared on the tables of the best hotels, lent quality cache to a product spelled in the English manner; thus, in 1895 Heinz marketed his best product spelled with a "k" and his standard grades spelled with a "c."
The product line eventually, in the 20th Century, was consolidated down to just one, spelled with a "k," and largely because of the success of that Heinz brand, "ketchup" eventually supplanted "catsup" in the American lexicon.
Although some sources claim Heinz introduced his ketchup in 1876, "we know they were making it before," said Emily Ruby, Heinz History Center curator specializing in the H.J. Heinz Company, as there are labels in the archives for "Heinz and Noble" ketchup, made for Heinz's first company, which went bust in 1875.
Heinz biographer Quentin Skrabec wrote that tomato ketchup was one of the last product lines introduced before the Heinz and Noble bankruptcy, which was caused by a combination of the company's rapid expansion into the midwest, the rippling effects of the banking panic of 1873, and business partners, the Nobles, who refused to stop writing checks when cash got tight.
Tomato ketchup was one of the first products rolled out when Heinz and his family attempted, without the Nobles, to claw out of debt and ignominy with a new food business the following year.
Ketchup had several things going for it, not least of which was a high profit margin, from 40 percent to 65 percent, according to Mr. Scrabec.
By the time the company introduced the "Octagon Style," Heinz was on its way to becoming the largest tomato ketchup producer in the world. The ledger of the company's tomato harvest receipts demonstrate the rapid growth. Heinz purchased 75,681 bushels of tomatoes in 1896, but just six years later, in 1902, that had more than doubled to 179,711 bushels.
Before the decade was out, the company was consuming more than half a million bushels of tomatoes, producing more than 12 million bottles of ketchup, and shipping a quarter-million gallons of ketchup to England, according to Andrew Smith, author of "Pure Ketchup: A history of America's National Condiment."
"It was less expensive, less time-consuming, and more convenient to buy ketchup in a store than it was to make it from scratch in one's own home," writes Mr. Smith.
Today, making ketchup in the home kitchen is still a project, but the returns on flavor make it worthwhile now that the modern commercial market has become largely homogeneous.
“We’re not trying to fix ketchup — we’re offering a different take on it,” said Brooks Hart, chef de cuisine at, or, The Whale, which makes a charred tomato ketchup. “Unilaterally, It’s been very, very popular.”
Reverse-engineering the recipe
"Keystone Ketchup (Octagon Style)" is definitely out of the ordinary. Thinner and more savoury than the modern stuff, it pairs really well with grilled meats or roasted vegetables.
After tasting it, Post-Gazette food editor Arthi Subramaniam said, "The current Heinz company can learn something from its founder when it comes it flavor. What used to be an intrepid spicy condiment that had plenty of chutzpah has become a timid smooth sauce that plays it safe."
It's worth remembering that "Ketchup's success was not due to its use on french fries, hot dogs, and hamburgers, since these were not mainstays of the American diet;" instead, as Andrew Smith notes, it was "employed in soups, gravies, sauces, salad dressings and as a condiment on steak, chops, roasts, cutlets, fish, oysters, eggs and many other foods."
Ketchup had class.
The original recipe for "Keystone Ketchup (Octagon Style)" calls for 100 gallons of tomato pulp and similarly bulk proportions for other ingredients, including half a pound of cloves, four gallons of vinegar and 38 pounds of sugar.
Scaling those proportions down to the home kitchen involves more than just dividing by 100 because the relative volume and weights differ from one spice to another, for example, one cup of ground cloves weighs 3.67 ounces while the same cup of ground mace weighs only 2.88 ounces. Simply put: the weight proportions of the bulk recipe do not correspond to the volume proportions commonly used in the home kitchen.
The amounts of garlic and onion are practically negligible when scaled down, and, arguably, could be left out altogether, but because they ARE ingredients in the original recipe, I've included the absurdly small amounts in the home kitchen recipe.
The original recipe calls for "thin tomato pulp.” You can go through the effort of running fresh tomatoes through a squeezo to remove the skins and seeds, or you can cheat like I do: Cook the tomatoes, skins and all, then let them cool a bit, then run it through a food processor in batches. That pulverizes the skins and most of the seeds. Or you can used canned crushed tomatoes, which have already been run through a mechanical sieve not unlike the ones employed by Heinz.
For measuring fresh tomatoes, I mash them down into a glass measuring cup.
Don't fiddle with the spices based on tasting from the boiling pot (something I am often tempted to do),- this doesn't taste like anything close to right until the very end, when you add the salt. I have maintained the procedures of the original recipe in which ingredients are added in stages through the boiling.
It's also important to stir the pot so the ketchup doesn't scorch. In "Pure Ketchup: A History of America's National Condiment," Andrew Smith quotes a Heinz employee who in 1901 bemoaned the "miseries" of making ketchup at home: "He little knows how fortunate he is to have been born a generation or so late, and to have escaped... the parboiling of his face and hands as he stirred, stirred and constantly stirred the catsup to keep it from burning."
I use an enameled Le Creuset pot, and it still needs to be stirred.
But it's worth it.
Former Post-Gazette columnist Dennis Roddy, after sampling the finished product, simply said: "This has ruined me for regular ketchup."
Keystone Ketchup (Octagon Style)
Based on 1895 hand-written company records in the Heinz History Center library
1/2 gallon (8 cups) of fresh tomatoes, or two 28-oz cans crushed tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon (slightly heaped) of ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon of ground allspice
1/3 (or heaping 1/4) teaspoon of ground cinnamon
3/8 (or scant 1/2) teaspoon of ground mace (or nutmeg)
1/8 teaspoon of ground cayenne pepper
A very small portion of very small clove of garlic, chopped
1/4 teaspoon of finely chopped onion
Boil fast for about 45 minutes, stirring regularly so it doesn't scorch; when it gets close to the desired consistency, add:
1/3 cup vinegar (distilled or malt vinegar preferred)
Continue cooking another 10 or 15 minutes until it achieves desired consistency, then add:
3/8 (or scant 1/2) cup sugar, 1½ Tablespoons of salt and stir well.
Cook another couple of minutes, then remove from fire.
If using canned crushed tomatoes, add 1 cup of water at the beginning.
For a large batch use #10 can of crushed tomatoes, 2 cups of water, and double the recipe proportions.
Hold the preservatives
I have not included two ingredients that were in the original recipe: salicylic acid and eosine solution. The first, a preservative derived originally from willow bark and then produced synthetically, is most commonly found today as an antiseptic in commercial toothpaste and a key ingredient in acne medications. The second was a red dye, most commonly used today in laboratories to stain tissue samples before microscopic examination.
This was not at all uncommon for the time. In 1900, the Minnesota State Dairy and Food Department released a report on adulterated foods in which they had tested 12 samples of ketchup (none of them Heinz), and found none to be pure: "Several contain preservatives, salicylic acid or benzoic acid, and all of them are colored with an analine dye, usually eosin, or a very similar color," the report said. "Of the chemical preservatives for foods, nothing good can be said."
Leaving these ingredients out of our recipe is actually in the spirit of Heinz, who, almost alone among ketchup manufacturers at the time, was striving to find a way to eliminate them from his products.
If Henry Heinz were alive today, he'd likely be at the forefront of the push toward organic.
As it was, Heinz was a “pure food” pioneer who helped bring about the country's first pure foods law, which not only required listing all ingredients on the label, but also created the Food and Drug Administration, thereby launching federal regulation of food quality.
All the other ketchup producers of the time banded together to fight passage of the new law. This was the era of Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle," and many ketchup factories weren't far removed from the squalor and adulteration Sinclair found in the meat packing industry. Rotten fruit, peelings, worm holes, slop from the floors all went into barrels destined for the ketchup kettles where the fermenting mess would be boiled, spiced, packed with preservatives and bright red artificial coloring and shipped to unsuspecting customers.
More than one scientific examination of ketchups at the time employed the terms "filthy" and "putrid."
Heinz from the beginning had focused on quality, transparency, and cleanliness, using whole fruit, clear glass instead of brown bottles so customers could see the product inside, and opening his factory to the public to assure them it was as clean, or cleaner than their kitchen at home.
If he could find a way to manufacture ketchup without any chemical preservatives and have it remain good for months, the difference between his product and his competitors' would be readily evident.
But it was the death knell for recipes like "Keystone Ketchup (Octagon Style)." Everything had to be retooled. The archives of the Sen. John Heinz History Center contain books full of recipe experiments conducted at the and of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries as the company sought a way to make its products without chemicals and dyes.
It meant more vinegar and sugar and a different blend of spices, but also even stricter quality control and an entirely new, more mechanized way of processing the tomatoes.
Heinz proved it could be done, and after passage of the Pure Foods and Drugs Act in 1906, Heinz aggressively marketed the fact its products were free of chemical preservatives and dyes.
"The H. J. Heinz Company played a critical role in the enactment, interpretation, and enforcement of the 1906 statute," according to Suzanne White Junod, historian for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
According to "Pure Ketchup: A History of America's National Condiment," most of the producers who banded together to fight the law were subsequently convicted of violating it.
Heinz alone embraced the notion of "pure food."
Donald Gilliland is a Post-Gazette digital news editor; email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @drgilliland.
Sources used for this story:
Archives of the Detre Library, Sen. John Heinz History Center, Pittsburgh
“H.J. Heinz, A Biography,” by Quentin R. Skrabek, Jr., 2009
“Pure Ketchup: A History of America’s National Condiment,” by Andrew F. Smith, 1996
“H.J. Heinz Company” (Images of America series), by Debbie Foster and Jack Kennedy for the H.J. Heinz Company, 2006
“Iconic Packaging - The Heinz Ketchup Bottle,” by Marcel Verhaaf, 2011 (https://issuu.com/bis_publishers/docs/iconic_packaging)
Minnesota State Dairy and Food Dept biennial report of 1900 (https://books.google.com/books?id=KzAeAQAAIAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false)