It’s enhanced more hamburgers than Hamburger Helper. With French fries it has formed as perfect a union as peanut butter and chocolate, and it’s made the inedible edible. What is this marvelous, miraculous substance? Why, it’s none other than Heinz Ketchup, the taste loved ’round the world.
Henry J. Heinz, the son of German immigrants Frederick and Margaretta (Schmit) Heinz, was born in 1844 in Birmingham in what is now known as the South Side section of Pittsburgh. When Henry was five, his family moved to Sharpsburg, a suburb outside the city. To make extra money, the young Heinz sold his mother’s excess produce door-to-door. When he was older, he began to bottle horseradish and sell it from a horse-drawn wagon. As his business grew, Henry added products like sauerkraut, vinegar, and pickles. He expanded his product line to include ketchup in 1876.
Heinz didn’t invent ketchup, but he certainly perfected it. Records show that as early as the beginning of the 1800s, the first Americans were making and bottling their own ketchup. Recipes from those times reveal that it was an arduous process. Ripe tomatoes were first squeezed to form pulp and then combined with salt, a mixture that was boiled for two hours, constantly stirring. This hot mix was then pushed through a sieve, seasoned, and then boiled again until thickened. When it cooled, the resulting condiment was bottled. In this primitive version of ketchup, one hundred tomatoes yielded four or five bottles capable of being shelved for up to three years.
According to legend, Heinz’s ketchup may have been an adaptation from a Chinese recipe for a thick sauce blended from tomatoes, special seasonings, and starch. Certainly, Heinz was always interested in using the finest, juiciest tomatoes, and Henry himself displayed a genius for marketing.
Americans fell in love with Heinz ketchup, and by 1907, Heinz was selling 12 million bottles of it a year, shipping it to countries all over the world. Pulitzer Prize winning writer Edith Wharton dubbed Heinz one of the “Lords of Pittsburgh” along with Carnegie, Frick, Mellon, and Westinghouse. Today, Heinz sells more than 650 million bottles of ketchup a year, exporting them to 200 countries around the globe.
Milk has long been touted as nature’s perfect food, as it contains almost all the nutrients the human body needs. But food is more than nutrition; it is about taste as well, and Heinz ketchup has been deemed by experts to possess an almost perfect taste.
Malcolm Gladwell examined the Heinz ketchup phenomenon in his 2009 book What the Dog Saw. Gladwell consulted Gary Beauchamp, the head of the Monell Chemical Senses Center, who claims that humans possess five known fundamental tastes: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. Umami, which in Japanese means “delicious” or “yummy,” has only been recently discovered and is difficult to define. The yummy umami taste comes from a substance called glutamate. Most living things possess glutamate, but when they die, the glutamate particles break apart and become L-glutamate.
This particle breakdown occurs when meat cooks, cheese ages, soy sauce ferments, and fruits and vegetables ripen under the sun. It has been discovered that humans have L-glutamate receptors. Some experts describe umami as savory, but the best way to describe it is as the “other” taste, the one that is not salty, sweet, sour, or bitter. For its part, Heinz ketchup hits every taste on the human palate, making it the king of condiments.
Others have tried to swipe the ketchup crown from Heinz, but have failed. Apparently, Henry Heinz, when he was developing his ketchup, included a greater percentage of tomato solids, which boosted the amount of umami. Heinz’s recipe also included a greater concentration of vinegar, which increased the acidity, making it more sour than its competitors. He also doubled the sugar, hitting the tongue’s sweet spot. Since all ketchup starts with tomatoes and salt, its base is already salty and bitter.
According to Gladwell’s book, Heinz came up with a condiment that pushed all five of these primal buttons. The taste of Heinz’s ketchup began at the tip of the tongue, where our receptors for sweet and salty first appear, moved along the sides, where sour notes seem the strongest, then hit the back of the tongue, for doses of umami and bitter flavor, all in one long crescendo. How many foods in the supermarket aisles run the sensory spectrum so perfectly?
People are intensely loyal to Heinz ketchup, often refusing to use any other brand. And devotees don’t relish the idea of perfection being messed with, even when it’s Heinz doing the messing. In the early 2000s, the Heinz company introduced a spectrum of colored ketchups. They sold well, especially to parents with children, but purists, as it turned out, preferred the traditional red. Today, Heinz ketchup only comes in its original color.
Heinz ketchup has been calculated to flow from its glass bottle at the speed of .028 miles per hour. This rate of flow is tested by the company’s quality assurance department, and if the ketchup flows any faster, that batch of ketchup is rejected.
That deliciously slow flow rate often causes a bit of anticipation on the part of the ketchup user. There is a secret to getting it to come out faster from the glass bottle. According to Heinz, if you firmly tap the “57” logo, the “sweet spot,” on the neck of the bottle, it will release faster from the bottle. They say patience is a virtue, and those who love Heinz ketchup don’t mind waiting a bit for perfection on their plate.
While wine connoisseurs debate where the best vinos hail from. Aficionados argue over who makes the best barbecue. However, there is no disputing that the best ketchup comes from Pittsburgh. No matter where you may roam in the world you’ll find Heinz ketchup. It is known as the quintessential condiment.
By Diane Gliozzi