A Spicy Take On An Old Standby: This Ketchup's Ripe For Return

Jul 22, 2014
Originally published on July 22, 2014 7:17 pm

When life gives you tomatoes, make ketchup. With those fruits of the vine in high season, All Things Considered reaches into the archives for an heirloom tomato ketchup recipe, which produces a spicy sauce you'll likely not to find anywhere else.

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Late July is a good time for tomatoes. Better boys, big beefs, brandy wines, Cherokee purples and of course Mr. Stripeys all ripening on the vine, ready to pick, eat and pick again. Too many tomatoes? No worries NPR's Melissa Gray, who's been known to sleuth old recipes, has this suggestion from last tomato season.

MELISSA GRAY, BYLINE: Ketchup, homemade ketchup. Yes people once routinely made their own ketchup. Remember the opening scene of the movie "Meet Me In St. Louis" set in 1903?


MARY ASTOR: (as Anna Smith) Best ketchup we ever made Katie.

MARJORIE MAIN: (as Katie) To sweet.

ASTOR: (as Anna Smith) Mr. Smith likes it on the sweet side.

MAIN: (as Katie) All men like it on the sweet side. Too sweet Ms. Smith.

GRAY: 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.

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. It was sort of spicy and 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 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 grandmother' 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.

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 the New York's Hudson Valley. And ketchup is essentially a fruit butter.

GRAY: And fruit butter? OK, tomatoes are technically fruit but there's no butter in ketchup .

PORTER: The name butter comes from the fact that it is spreadable like butter.

GRAY: Oh, that makes sense. OK, start the 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 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? 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'd 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 sauce, it's better.

LEDVINKA: This very robust, you can taste the tomato, and you can taste these wonderful spices, particularly the clove and the cinnamon. I just enjoy the heck out of it.

LEDVINKA: But 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 clovier. He's sense 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.

CORNISH: That's ALL THING CONSIDERED's Melissa Gray. You can get Jim Ledvinka's ketchup recipe on our food blog, The Salt at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.