The basket of tomatoes at the Waverly Farmers Market seemed to shout: “Buy me.”
They were marked “seconds,” and the contents looked as if they might explode before they reached home.
I hesitated, and pondered a challenge. Is it possible I could master, at first try, homemade ketchup, the kind my grandmother made with overripe tomatoes such as these?
Would my version taste the same as I remember, spread over the scrapple she served Sunday mornings? Would it be the same light orange color? Would it be redolent of the spices — pepper, cinnamon, allspice — whatever it was she used?
My grandmother was a natural cook. She and her sister, who lived under the same roof all their lives, worked in tandem in the kitchen.
They made everything from scratch, even our mayonnaise. They stewed celery, put up pickles, made their own soap, cured sauerkraut and bottled relishes. And they made it all look easy.
This summer’s heavy rains that have pushed tomatoes to the bursting point would have been an opportunity, not a challenge, to the sisters. They had a rhythm to the seasons and the August to early-September stretch was one of the times when they broke away from the summer rule of trying to keep their kitchen cool. Even if the day selected for ketchup making was miserable, with lingering heat and humidity, they pressed on like the kitchen generals they were.
The two sisters would never admit it, but the ketchup ordeal must have been tasking. They gave up on it the early 1960s, some years before they died.
My late uncle Edward Jacques never understood why all ketchup did not taste like the sisters’ product. He believed somewhere, someone else made ketchup like this — and it ought to be for sale. The family shopped Amish markets, Pennsylvania farm stands in search of a homemade ketchup that might duplicate or approximate ours. None did.
We’d present him with a jar or bottle and he’d try it, then say “OK. Flunks the taste test.”
I once ordered a dish at the Ritz-Carlton in New Orleans that was served with homemade ketchup. The red sauce arrived in a fancy silver gravy boat (not at all like the recycled Pepsi-Cola bottles my grandmother used.) Its taste was off by a mile. It was good stuff, a fine tomato-based condiment. But it was not made according to that elusive culinary palate of the 2800 block of Guilford Avenue in Baltimore.
This year I’m going to give it a try. It’s daunting because I have no recipe, only childhood memories.
My grandmother swore by the recipes in Lowney’s Cook Book, a 1907 volume published the Walter Lowney Co. of Boston. She kept the book in a sacred place, a drawer of the sideboard that contained the few recipes she and her sister trusted.
The Lowney formula: 24 ripe tomatoes, peeled onions, green peppers, salt, brown sugar, ginger, cinnamon and mustard. Then comes the daunting part — peel the tomatoes and cook the ingredients six hours, stirring often.
Does anyone have the patience to stand in a kitchen for six hours with a spoon?
My grandmother and aunt never winced at six hours spent standing over the old Oriole-brand gas range. They'd start at 6 a.m. finish up by noon, have lunch, make iced tea for the evening meal and put a roast in for dinner.
They bottled the ketchup in the washed soft drink bottles and used some sort of bottle capper to seal them. The capper didn’t always do the job; the ketchup sometimes leaked.
This was not a problem. The stuff was so delicious it rarely lasted after the new year.