Because I Can: Homemade Ketchup

The journey that culminated in my realization of the wonder that is homemade ketchup was long and circuitous, and, as sometimes happens, littered with the body of a friend.

One autumn night in 2000, our friend Geoffrey slunk back in through our kitchen door, a waft of cigarette smoke trailing behind him, as he hoped to avoid his wife, Sarah, who was helping The One clear the dishes from the dining table so we could play cards. Geoffrey leaned against the counter while I washed dishes.

“The lasagna was great,” he said.

“Thanks.”

It wasn’t, actually. It was an anemic imposter, devoid of the beef, veal, pork, and cheese that define the true Italian diva.  Instead, it contained zucchini, peppers, and broccoli rabe layered between spinach noodles. Geoffrey was in his green-food phase.

☞ MAKE THE RECIPE: HOMEMADE KETCHUP

Geoffrey was the worst kind of vegetarian. He was the sort of self-righteous, self-appointed mayor of Meatlessopolis who never cared how he inconvenienced the unconverted. Whenever he and Sarah came to dinner, I had to haul out a special skillet, one that had never experienced the sizzling, seductive sear of cold meat on its surface, because Geoffrey insisted he wouldn’t eat anything cooked in a pan that had touched meat.

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On top of all that, he was lactose-intolerant—say hello to dairy-free “cheese”—and also a bit of a hypochondriac. Half an hour or so after we would pour wine, he’d rub his forehead, grab the bottle, and mutter “sulfites” as he scrutinized the label. Then he’d turn his eyes heavenward and shake his head, looking to all the world like one of those beleaguered saints I used to read about in my catechism workbook when I was a kid.

Every time the two of them came over for dinner and cards, which was often, I not only tied myself into knots trying to come up with something to serve him that The One and I could at least choke down with wan smiles, I stomped through the supermarket seeking suitable meat alternatives and scoured the local liquor stores in search of a specific wine no one had ever heard of (and which we’d never, ever be caught dead drinking on any other occasion), all in the name of friendship.

“Oh, and the sauce? Fan-tas-tic!” Geoffrey turned his back to the sink and nonchalantly cleaned his nails with a toothpick. I, on the other hand, was so angry my back teeth began twerking. I redoubled my efforts scrubbing the nubbins of noodles from The Great Un-Besmirched Pan.

“Yeah, I got some beautiful second tomatoes,” I said, trying to keep the conversation going. “So I made a sauce. I’m making homemade ketchup, too. I think it’ll make a nice gift.”

With that, Geoffrey lowered his head and looked as if he was squinting over a pair of spectacles. Judgment rippled across his face. “Why on earth would you go through all that work for anyone?”

Clearly, the irony of the question was lost on him.

I looked at him as if he had asked me, “Why do you eat an entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk by yourself?” or “Why do you binge watch TVLand all Saturday?”

“Because…I…can.” It came out quietly, almost whispered, but carried such weight as to shut down the conversation.

During the past 13 years, I learned how to wriggle out of my friendship with Geoffrey, but not how to make homemade ketchup. It was distaste by association.

Two weeks ago, though, The One and I pulled into the old-fashioned gas station just off the center of town in Roxbury, Connecticut, to buy organic vegetables from our local mechanic, Mark. On the counter were gorgeous globes of love practically rolling off the table and into our basket. But it was the boxes stacked beneath that caught my eye, “Sauce Tomatoes” scrawled across their sides. Always a sucker for the underdog—and alarmingly low on homemade tomato puree—I asked the price.

“A dollar fifty per pound,” said Lucia, the salesperson. A buck fifty? That’s incredible! I thought. I bought 20 pounds, then a few days later I went back for 20 more. And after making and freezing 12 quarts of puree, I still had ten pounds left.

Then I heard it in my head. “I’m making homemade ketchup, too. I think it’ll make nice gifts.” Why on earth did I let his offhanded comment stop me from doing something I’ve wanted to do for more than a decade? I asked myself. And with that, I began slicing into a beefsteak, its juices squirting across the counter, and simmering, and food-milling, all the while holding a raging one-sided conversation with Geoffrey.

You know, Geoffrey, if you got your head out of your sanctimonious ass, you’d see that making things from scratch is one of the best ways to live.

I grabbed a handful of overly soft Romas and squeezed hard, bleeding them into a bowl.

You may be a strict vegetarian, but you’re a food Nazi. Do you hear me? A FOOD NAZI!

I slammed the pot full of chopped tomatoes on the stove and brought the whole thing to a boil.

And ever since you started making millions of dollars, you’ve become a motherf…

And there it was. The cancerous root of it all. Standing over a pot of burbling tomatoes, I had a breakthrough that would have cost me $250 had I been sitting in my shrink’s office.

I understood that I have always felt less than Geoffrey. I’ve never dressed as if I was a member of the Connecticut Lockjaw Society. I don’t have famous actors as friends. I don’t throw fundraisers at my home to support state politicians. Instead I dress so messily I startle our UPS driver. I walked away from Meryl Streep just as she was about to talk to me at an event because I was utterly tongue-tied. And I couldn’t name a state politician if Mama Leite’s life depended on it. I had let his elitism—-his militant vegetarianism, his social exclusivity, his higher tax bracket—-cow me.

After the homemade ketchup was cooled, bottled, and tucked away, I considered giving Geoffrey a jar. There would be a certain symmetry to that. But I knew that such a simple gesture would cost me a lot. A hell of a lot more than $1.50 a pound. Originally published September 27, 2013.

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Comments

  1. I have seen so many articles about the origins ketchup, all these fancy ideas, and there is one thing I want to say. In my husband’s family Chinese dialect, ketchup literally translates as “tomato sauce”. The first part sounds like Kia and means tomato. Jup is sauce. Kia Jup- tomato sauce.

    1. That’s very interesting, Vicki. Appreciate you sharing that information with us.

  2. I don’t know how your site escaped me all these many years, but I am truly glad I found you. I look forward to browsing through what promises to be very interesting content. And I just may plant “Heinz tomatoes” again and try my hand at making ketchup. There really is a Heinz tomato and I grew some when I lived in FL. I thought the tomato was too sweet. However, now I see the light.

  3. David,

    This piece still holds water. ;-) After many years of cooking for others, I can say with deep conviction…if I am not fully present and enjoying myself, it will be present in the food. And I’m not just referring to the severed front of a fingernail (unfortunate accident from not being fully present)! I think folks that really enjoy cooking would agree that love is manifested in the dish just as easily as sadness or hate. Homemade ketchup…it is still on my list. Be well!!

    1. Thank you, CindiMac. And thanks for reading again. (We have soooo many new readers, not everyone is familiar with some of the posts.) And I do hope you make homemade ketchup. And I hope you’ll take photos! xx

  4. When I started reading this I was dismayed as to why you would want to be friends with such a pretentious prick, I was so relieved when the “mother” word came out of your mouth/thoughts! I’m going to try this on a smaller scale since I have tomatoes I need to asap, and because you don’t have a recipe for boozing up tomatoes like cherries!

    I learned years ago that cooking for people I didn’t like pissed me off and made me cranky. I made my husband take them to restaurants instead.

    1. Tammi, that’s a good question. I have to say at first we enjoyed each other. But as he began making more and more money he became more and more of a pain in the ass. It’s nouveau riche sprawl.

  5. David,

    I’ve said those three words to more people than I can count, and sometimes it’s the only answer. Whether they crawl away in their heads feeling less about themselves, or take it as a challenge to try whatever they saw me doing (and therefore learn something) — I leave it to them. What I want to share with you is a slightly kooky Asian tradition that we have about not being angry in the kitchen. Mum always says that the food that is being prepared will KNOW, and react accordingly. If you’re sad, your food will taste of that sadness; if you’re furious, it will not come together, and will end in disaster. Ever heard of this…? For all my modernity, this is something I really, really believe — only because I’ve seen the effects of me being angry or sad while I’m making food for myself or the people I care about.

    So it takes a truly heroic effort to cook for people you don’t particularly care about, who actually enjoy what you serve them, which means you actually rise above yourself. Even so, I wouldn’t do this too often. I’d rather save my culinary efforts for those I truly and deeply care for.

    Just a thought… :)

    Beijos xxx

    1. Ling, that’s a charming tradition. I haven’t heard of it, but I did read Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, which has a similar quality to it. Have you read the book? xox

          1. Exactly right. Maybe it’s an instinct in some cultures that place a high value on the healing and nourishing power of food that develop such taboos :)

  6. David, love this article. I think people like it because everyone has or has had a “Geoffrey” in their lives. It’s almost comforting to know someone else has a Geoffrey to bear and suffer through. I think I’ve managed to divest myself of my Geoffrey’s over the years and while therapy was expensive, it was money well-spent because I learned that life was too short to waste on people who clearly wanted to suck all joy of their own lives and my own. I’m looking forward to making ketchup next year when the tomatoes are bursting from my garden.

    1. ATNeil, thank you for the kind words. If the comments are any indication, the world is filled with Geoffreys! But congrats to you (and your shrink). A lighter life, one that is blissfully empty of those nigglers and sticklers, is a good one, ain’t it?

  7. David, I may never make ketchup, but I will save and reread this post for years to come! (Glad you resisted the urge to send a bottle to Geoffrey – wouldn’t want to stir that mess up again!)

    1. Thanks, Jean. It’s weird. I’ve gotten a lot of response (both in comments and through email) about people liking the post. Not exactly sure why. In fact, I was interviewed for an article, and the first thing the writer mentioned was this post. Hmmm.

  8. DAVID Great recipe, David, and an even better story! I find it ironic that, as a “strict vegetarian”, Geoffrey has to sneak a smoke! But then again, tobacco is a plant!

  9. When I have time to make homemade ketchup, I will. The truth is that I’ve never tried homemade ketchup… I am very intrigued! But one thing is sure: It was fun to read this post, David! Thank you for putting a smile on my tired, sleepy face!!! Um abraço.

  10. Why make it? “Because. I. Can!”

    I’m with you, David. That’s why I looove the old cookbooks! I found a little book on Middle Eastern cooking published in the ’30s or ’40s that tells how the Bedouins make pita without yeast (really easy) and yoghurt just with milk and the natural organisms in the air (I put cheesecloth over the pan to keep out the winged creatures. I’ve been using both of those methods for so many years and have never done it any other way since then. Easy-peasy. And may I say cheap?

    My mom used to make something called “prune soy” which is similar to ketchup in flavor but uses Italian plums. I’m a Heinz girl, but I do want to learn to make my own ketchup, too. Just because I can.

    You should have invited Geoffrey over and raved about the BEEFSTEAK tomatoes you used in your lasagna sauce, and how you added some shiitakes to give it a more MEATY flavor…and since you had a special pan for him, you could have made him his own personal lasagna and made the “real thing” for the rest of you. /;) Why would he mind? Can you tell I’ve been hit by the meat police a time or two?

    1. Oh, ruthie, you’re marvelously evil as I am. Love it! And I’m completely intrigued by your pita and yoghurt. I just bought 10 pounds of pork belly that will soon be hickory-smoked maple bacon. (You’d think I was preparing for the Apocalypse!)

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