Editor's Note: This post is part of All Things Considered's Found Recipes project.
Although Heinz may dominate the ketchup scene, 100 years ago it wasn't uncommon to make your own at home. So why bother doing so now, when you can just buy the bottles off the shelf? At least one man, Jim Ledvinka, was motivated by nostalgia.
"Oh, yes — we remember my grandmother making ketchup. And it was quite a sight to behold," Ledvinka says.
Ledvinka now lives in Athens, Ga., but he grew up outside of Chicago with his younger sister Joanne in the 1940s and '50s. Every year their grandmother Antoinette Ledvinka would commandeer the kitchen for a marathon, no-nonsense ketchup-making session that lasted several days.
"I remember the huge pot of ketchup simmering on the stove," Joanne Ledvinka says. "The coloring was a little bit different; it was more of a brown, not a red."
The color wasn't the only thing that made grandma's homemade ketchup "special."
"We hated it," Jim says. Joanne also was not a fan. "That ketchup did not come anywhere near the meatloaf," she says.
Jim says his grandma's version didn't taste nice and sweet. It was thin, a little runny, and it had a strong taste that was both spicy and vinegary — at least, that was their impression as children. But when Jim grew up a little bit, he had a very different reaction.
"Mother opened a jar of my grandmother's ketchup. I tried it, and I said, 'This is great! [Was I] crazy or something?' It was sort of like, all of a sudden, a revelation that comes when you have adult taste buds," he says.
Unfortunately, his appreciation came too late. It was Grandma Ledvinka's last batch of ketchup — canned in 1958, shortly before her death.
Jim Ledvinka is now himself a grandfather. Thinking about his grumpy grandma — and her spicy ketchup — he wrote to NPR's Found Recipes project for help re-creating the ketchup of his memories. We connected him with Kaela Porter, who writes the Local Kitchen food blog.
"I'm hardly an expert," Porter says. "I've actually made classic tomato ketchup once."
She notes that ketchup is technically a fruit butter. The name "butter" comes from the fact that is spreadable, like butter.
"I have made dozens and dozens of fruit butters, and they're simple recipes. You take some fruit, and add some sugar, and cook it way, way down," she says.
Porter says the recipe for ketchup hasn't changed in a long time; all versions use the same basics of tomatoes, vinegar, sugar and some spices. But it's the spices that can vary the most.
After chatting back and forth with Porter over email, the first big break in Ledvinka's "ketchup quest" came when she asked him a very basic question: Did his grandmother have any cookbooks that she used? In a flash, it came to him — The Settlement Cook Book (The Way to a Man's Heart).
To find out if it contained his grandmother's ketchup, Ledvinka downloaded two editions of the cookbook and bought a physical copy from a book dealer. He compared the versions and determined that his grandmother had likely improvised from the 1903 edition of the cookbook.
He then bought several pounds of ripe, beefsteak tomatoes, cooked them down to a thickened sauce, and did experiments with various combinations of spices. Over the course of two weeks, Ledvinka made five different batches and took meticulous notes.
He invited friends over to taste test — most preferred the milder and sweeter versions he made early on. But his sister, Joanne, loved the spicy final result.
"It's very robust," she says. "You can taste the tomato and you can taste these wonderful spices, particularly the clove and the cinnamon. I just enjoy the heck out it."
Joanne said it was even better than grandma's. Jim dubbed his adapted recipe "Bohemian Ketchup" in honor of Antoinette Ledvinka's Bohemian ancestry.
Jim says the tart and heavy clove flavor might not be anyone else's ideal ketchup, but he still loves it — though he remembers grandma's version having an even more intense clove flavor.
He's since poured his homemade ketchup over meatloaf and hamburgers — anything with ground beef. But now he needs more. This summer, as tomatoes turn red, ripe and juicy, Ledvinka will be back in the kitchen making ketchup, just like his grandma used to do.
Recipe: Bohemian Ketchup
This is Jim Ledvinka's take on his grandmother's recipe, adapted from The Settlement Cook Book (The Way to a Man's Heart), 1903. Canning is optional if you won't use it up right away.
- 1/2 bushel ripe tomatoes
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 1 clove garlic, peeled
- 2 tsp. red pepper (cayenne)
- 3 cups cider vinegar
- 3 tbsp. salt
- 1 cup dark brown sugar
- 1 tsp. ground allspice
- 1 tbsp. ground cloves
- 1 tbsp. ground cinnamon
- 4 tbsp. dry mustard
- 2 tbsp. Lea & Perrins Sauce
- 1 tsp. ground black pepper
1. Remove bad parts from the tomatoes. Wash and quarter them and add them to a very large stock pot, along with the onion, garlic, and cayenne pepper. Crush that mixture a bit to provide some liquid. Bring to a slow simmer for 30 minutes. Let cool.
2. Run the contents of the stock pot in batches through a food mill. The old-fashioned kind of food mill with a fixed fine disk works best.
3. Return the milled mixture to the stock pot and simmer very slowly (to keep the tomatoes from burning), until the volume is reduced by about one-half. It should have the consistency of thick tomato sauce. This step may take six to twelve hours, maybe more, depending on the tomato variety. Let cool.
4. Run the contents of the stock pot in batches through a blender.
5. Return the mixture to the stock pot and bring to a simmer until the mixture is the consistency of commercial catsup. This step may take six hours or more.
6. Add the remaining ingredients, bring to a simmer, and reduce to the desired consistency.
7. Prepare a canner with jars and and lids sufficient for about 8 - 10 pints of catsup: Fill canner with water to at least 1 inch above tops of jars, and add a little vinegar. Bring to boil for 15 mins. Place lids, funnel, tongs, and ladle in saucepan with water, bring to a low simmer.
8. Use the tongs to remove the jars and lids one at a time from the canner, pouring the jar water back into the canner. Fill each hot jar with catsup, leaving 1/2-inch of head space. Wipe the rims of the jars, affix the lid, screw the band on finger tight, and return to the canner. Replace the lid on the canner and process in boiling water bath for 15 minutes. Remove jars from canner, listen for a ping as the catsup cools and the lid pops into place. Test the seal by pressing down on the lid; it should not give. Let the jars rest until cool. Store in a dark place.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
It's been a while since we've had a lost recipe on the program. That's where we help solve listeners' culinary mysteries by teaming them up with kitchen detectives. Now that tomatoes are in season, NPR's Melissa Gray has a lost recipe that's ripe for the picking.
MELISSA GRAY, BYLINE: It's about ketchup, homemade ketchup, and, yes, people once routinely made their own ketchup. Remember the opening scene of the movie "Meet Me in St. Louis" set in 1903?
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS")
MARY ASTOR: (as Mrs. Anna Smith) Best ketchup we ever made, Katie.
MARJORIE MAIN: ( as Katie) Too sweet.
ASTOR: (as Mrs. Anna Smith) Mr. Smith likes it on the sweet side.
MAIN: (as Katie) All men like it on the sweet side. Too sweet, Mrs. Smith.
GRAY: Hmm. Hot and steamy business, that ketchup making, so why bother if you can just buy the bottles off the shelf? Well, maybe because making ketchup makes you nostalgic.
JIM LEDVINKA: Oh, yes, we remember my grandmother making ketchup, and it was quite a sight to behold.
GRAY: That's listener Jim Ledvinka of Athens, Georgia. He and his younger sister, Joanne, grew up outside of Chicago in the '40s and '50s where every year their grandmother, Antoinette Ledvinka, would commandeer the kitchen. No smiles. She was all business.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LEDVINKA: The whole kitchen was given over to ketchup for several days. Huge amounts of equipment.
JOANNE LEDVINKA: I remember the huge pot of ketchup simmering on the stove. The coloring was a little bit different. It was more of a brown, not a red.
GRAY: And the color wasn't the only thing that made Grandma's homemade ketchup special.
LEDVINKA: We hated it.
LEDVINKA: It was not my favorite.
GRAY: Which is to say it wasn't Heinz.
LEDVINKA: That ketchup did not come anywhere near the meatloaf.
LEDVINKA: Well, it didn't taste nice and sweet. Sometimes, it was runny. It tasted very strong, sort of spicy, sort of sour, vinegary.
GRAY: That's when they were kids. But when Jim became a young man, he had a very different reaction.
LEDVINKA: Mother opened a jar of my grandmother's ketchup. I tried it and I said, this is great. Are you crazy or something? It was sort of like all of a sudden a revelation that comes when you have adult taste buds.
GRAY: Alas, this appreciation came too late. It was Grandma Ledvinka's last batch of ketchup canned in 1958 shortly before her death. Jim Ledvinka is now himself a grandfather. Thinking about his grumpy grandma and her spicy ketchup, he wrote to our lost recipes project for help. I got him in touch with an expert.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KAELA PORTER: I'm hardly an expert. I've actually made classic tomato ketchup once.
GRAY: That's Kaela Porter.
PORTER: I write a blog called Local Kitchen Blog that's devoted to eating and cooking locally in New York's Hudson Valley, and ketchup is essentially a fruit butter.
GRAY: A fruit butter? OK. Tomatoes are technically fruit, but there's no butter in ketchup.
PORTER: The name butter comes from the fact that is spreadable like butter.
GRAY: Oh. That makes sense. OK, start the music.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
PORTER: I have made dozens and dozens of fruit butters, and they're simple recipes. You know, you take some fruit, and you add a little sugar, and you cook it way, way down. In the case of ketchup, the recipe for ketchup hasn't changed in a long time. It's sugar and tomatoes and vinegar and some spices.
GRAY: But the exact blend of spices can depend on who's making the ketchup. Our listener Jim Ledvinka learned all of this emailing Kaela Porter, the food blogger. The first big break in his ketchup quest came when she asked him a very basic question.
LEDVINKA: Did your grandmother have any cookbooks? Like in a flash, it came to me, "The Settlement Cookbook: The Way to a Man's Heart."
GRAY: Could this be the key to Antoinette Ledvinka's ketchup?
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GRAY: To find out, Jim downloaded two editions of "The Settlement Cookbook," bought an actual physical copy from a book dealer and compared ketchup recipes. He deduced that his grandmother likely had improvised from the 1903 edition of the cookbook. He then bought several pounds of ripe, beefsteak tomatoes. He cooked them down to a thickened sauce, and he did experiments with various combinations of spices. Over the course of two weeks, Jim Ledvinka made five batches of ketchup. And his sister, Joanne, she tried them all.
LEDVINKA: The final result is delicious.
GRAY: Joanne Ledvinka says it's not only close to her grandmother's sauce, it's better.
LEDVINKA: It's very robust. You can taste the tomato. You can taste these wonderful spices, particularly the clove and the cinnamon. I just enjoy the heck out if.
LEDVINKA: I think the result we got might not be anyone else's ideal ketchup, but I love it.
GRAY: Jim's ketchup is tart and clovey, though Jim recalls that his grandma's ketchup was even clovey-er. He's since poured his homemade ketchup over meatloaf, hamburgers, anything with ground beef, which means he needs more ketchup. And that's why in Athens, Georgia, this summer, as tomatoes turn red, ripe and juicy, Jim Ledvinka is back in the kitchen making ketchup just like his grandma used to do.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FRIM FRAM SAUCE")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) I want the frim fram sauce with the oss and fay with shifafa on the side. I don't want pork chops...
CORNISH: That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED's Melissa Gray. You can get Jim Ledvinka's ketchup recipe on our food blog, The Salt, at npr.org.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FRIM FRAM SAUCE")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) I want the frim fram sauce with the oss and fay with shifafa on the side. Now, a fellow...
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
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