The Long History of Ketchup (and Other Picnic Condiments)

Fourth of July picnics are full of friends, family, flags and fireworks. They’re also full of sauces. Next weekend, if you enjoy ketchup on a hot dog, mustard on a burger, or mayonnaise in potato salad, you’re taking part in an ancient culinary tradition that changed the way we look at food—and even our cultural traditions.

“Sauces are unnecessary, but essential,” says Maryann Tebben, director of the Center for Food Studies at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Massachusetts. She is author of the book “Sauces: A Global History,” which explores the history and significance of sauces on cuisine and even on national identity.

Mapping sauces’ historic ties to national pride, Tebben’s book provides context—and even historical recipes—for our favorite culinary additions, including the ones that will adorn picnic foods across the country next weekend.

For example, the American mainstay ketchup made its way to the U.S. among “India Soy” products, first imported from Asia to Britain in the seventeenth century. What we know today as a tangy, red, tomato condiment started as mushroom and walnut sauces, often with anchovies. Its name comes from an Indonesian sauce, called kecap or ke-tsiap, and it has similarities to Moorish Spain’s escabeche, another vinegar-based sauce.

Funneling centuries of sauces into four “master sauce” categories—vinegar; mayonnaise; spicy red sauces like harissa, mole and Tabasco; and fermented sauces, like soy sauce—Tebben describes the varied history of today’s popular additions and shows how many of them have their roots in very ancient traditions.

“If a single characteristic is common to all sauces, it is the role of sauce as an accent, a secondary player, the harmony to the main ingredient’s melody,” she says. “The flavor that sauce adds should be indefinable, almost beyond description."

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Bard College at Simon's Rock
Director of the Center for Food Studies