“You won’t believe what I found!” my mother calls.
She is now halfway through the Great American Kitchen Purge, for which she has enlisted my help on a recent trip home. My task: to dig into boxes labeled “junk” (her word, not mine), sift through soon-to-be-discarded, 20-year-old kitchen supplies, and pull out anything I might want to adopt. So far, I’ve scored a wok, a bread knife, several baking dishes, and some sentimental items from my childhood, such as my first fork and my favorite Peter Rabbit bowl (“junk”).
I put down my loot and join my mother in the other room, where she is up to her ears in paper.
Apparently, she has been hoarding files of clipped recipes dating back to the Paleozoic Era. This is unlike my mother, who rarely follows a recipe that isn’t from the latest issue of Cook’s Illustrated, and who is usually quick to dispose of things she no longer has a use for. Her clothing policy, for instance, is to donate anything she hasn’t worn in three years. And last year she hired a company to empty out nearly everything in the basement, including all of my Cabbage Patch dolls (“They were disgusting, Laura”) and several boxes of exemplary schoolwork from back in the days when everything had to be written in cursive. It was all just “junk” — like I said, her word.
It is quite the sight: my mother, hunched over piles of exploding file folders, her eyes peering over the glasses sitting on the end of her nose as she scours through yellowed New York Times recipes from the 1980s.
She sits up when I walk in. “Remember this?” she asks, handing me my father’s ketchup recipe.
As if I could forget. My father detested store-bought ketchup, eschewing it for his lumpy, chunky, vinegary, altogether icky homemade version. I remember tasting it once and never going back.
The recipe itself is simple and basic. He’d clipped it from the Times and inscribed notes on it (in cursive!): Do without pickling spices? Less cider vinegar? It is magical — here is, in my hands, one of the few links I have to a truly sensory memory of my father. A recipe? You can taste that. And that’s worth something — even if you don’t remember liking it.
“Can I have it?” I ask her.
Because even she knows this isn’t junk.
* * *
My brother’s taste buds were always more refined and adventurous than mine. At restaurants, he’d go for the swordfish or duck — at age seven. He was sophisticated enough to appreciate Daddy’s ketchup, and of course, like my father, he detested the Heinz variety.
But the problem with memories is that they change. Details disappear and reappear and shift and trick. Did my brother actually like Daddy’s ketchup, or was he trying to prove something about his grownup taste buds? For that matter, did I really dislike it, or was I just being difficult?
All we remember now are the stories we’ve been told. There’s no way of knowing whether they’re true.
* * *
To recreate a memory is an impossible task. But it does help to have a recipe.
I decide that I must follow it to a T. My goal: to cook up the exact taste I remember detesting as a child, the same one that my father and brother loved so much.
I begin with 14 ripe tomatoes from my garden. The recipe asks for large tomatoes, and mine are but plum-sized. I plan to cut back on the other ingredients to adjust. This is my first mistake.
Most tomato-based recipes tell you to peel your fruit before you cook it, and for good reason: Skins floating around in your sauce are disgusting. This recipe doesn’t mention skins at all. But since it asks me to run my concoction through a “food mill” (it was the 1980s, after all), I figure that my Cuisinart will break the skins down enough that they won’t be noticeable. So I decide not to bother with removing them. This proves to be my second mistake.
What if my tomatoes are the wrong kind? The recipe doesn’t specify which type to use, and mine are a collection of overripe, watery heirlooms. Romas are a drier variety and perhaps would’ve been a wiser choice. I try to imagine the type of tomato my father would’ve used — Jerseys from my grandfather’s garden? — but that level of detail is impossible to discern.
Then, the biggest ambiguity of all: two tablespoons of pickling spice. Pickling spice can mean any combination of an innumerable assortment of herbs and spices; the exact combination my do-it-yourself perfectionist of a father used is another unknown. But I figure that if buy commercial pickling spice, the brand he most likely purchased circa 1987 was McCormick’s. I buy some.
Once I start cooking, more problems arise. First, I discover that I’ve forgotten to pick up red onions, so I must substitute yellow. Then, after I’ve reduced the amount of red peppers and onions to accommodate for my tiny tomatoes, I forget to do the same for the vinegar, sugar, and spices, thanks to my terrible memory.
Plus, the recipe tells me to simmer the concoction for 30 minutes — but after that point, it is the consistency of a thin tomato soup, probably because I’ve used the wrong kind of tomatoes and added far too much vinegar. I reduce it for another hour or so before I call it done. It still doesn’t look or taste much like ketchup, but I am hopeful that as it cools, it will gel.
After a drawn-out canning ordeal (and several burns later), I have my father’s ketchup, all sealed up in half-pint jars, cooling on my kitchen counter.
* * *
If my dad’s ketchup was a pungent, pucker-inducing, sweet-yet-sour glob of dark red disgustingness, what I have before me now is, by all accounts, worse.
The color is lighter than I remember. It’s not as chunky, but it’s still globby, and I am dismayed to discover that my food processor was unable to annihilate the tomato skins, which are now curled up into spears that stab the roof of my mouth as I taste my experiment. It has the same color and lack of viscosity as a runny shrimp cocktail sauce. And thanks to my earlier forgetfulness, it is far too sweet and vinegary and cinnamony.
And worst of all, this ketchup doesn’t taste like what I remember my father’s tasting like. It’s still gross, yes, but in an entirely different way.
It is a tomato disaster.
* * *
Staring at the five half-pint jars, I begin to question everything. In my memory, my father made this famous ketchup all the time. It was the Only Ketchup He’d Eat. It was his favorite.
But what if none of that were true? What if he only made it once and, as I am sure will happen to me, watched his jars collect dust forever? I remember sitting next to him at the kitchen table and puckering as I tasted it with a spoon. I’ve always assumed that was just one tiny moment I remember of all the many ketchup-eating moments. But maybe that was the one and only time any of us ever ate the stuff.
When in doubt: I call my mother.
“Hey, you know Daddy’s ketchup recipe?” I ask her.
“Oh! Did I tell you I ran into that not too long ago?” she asks. (At least forgetfulness runs in the family.)
“Um, yeah — I was there. You gave it to me,” I tell her. “And I actually made the ketchup.”
“You’re kidding. You did? How was it?”
“It’s pretty gross.”
“That’s how I remember it tasting,” she says.
“You didn’t like it either?”
“Not really.” This is crazy. All these years, I’ve assumed I didn’t like the ketchup because I was too young or too unsophisticated to appreciate it. But maybe it was actually gross.
Then I ask: “Did Daddy make it every year, or was it only once?” The answer matters, and I hope she has one.
“I only remember him making it that one time,” she says.
“Are you sure? I thought he made it all the time, and it was the only ketchup he’d eat.”
My mother seems somewhat surprised by this. “I can’t imagine he would’ve made it more than once,” she says. “I mean, it was a lot of work and it wasn’t exactly a big hit.”
* * *
What will I do with all this ketchup? Send it to my brother as a joke? Would he even remember that he used to like the stuff? Heck, maybe he never even liked it — maybe I made that part up, too.
Perhaps I can turn it into something else. If you pretend it’s not ketchup, it’s not exactly gross, per se. It’s just not the kind of thing you’d want to put on your burger. It’s too spicy. And vinegary. And . . . wrong. But maybe it would make a nice tomato-soup base.
The clipped recipe has been sitting on my kitchen counter for a few weeks now, next to my unopened jars of ketchup. I pick up the crisp yellow newsprint and examine it more closely, trying to imagine my father cutting it out, laying it on the counter and bending over a cutting board to see the small New York Times print as he chopped his red onion, taking notes on the flavor for the next time — if there ever was a next time — he’d make the recipe.
Do without pickling spices? Less cider vinegar?
And then it hit me: His ketchup, or what I remember of it, was too pungent — too much clove, too much cinnamon, and too much vinegar. Like mine, but not as bad, because he probably didn’t forget to reduce his proportions. And looking at his blue ballpoint cursive, I finally realize what he was doing: he was trying to fix a broken recipe, to make it taste more like ketchup. For me, and for our family, so that we’d like it, too.
His little note to himself — and now, more than 20 years later, to me — is proof that what I remember about that ketchup is, in fact, accurate. It was pungent, and it would’ve been better without pickling spices and with less cider vinegar. This tiny piece of newsprint, filed away among piles and piles of junk, is an itty-bitty piece of evidence that confirms one of the few memories I have of my father.
He loved homemade ketchup.
The rest of the details may be impossible to track down. But all of it happened.
Contributions from farmers, cooks, and others who are tasting the many meanings of food.
Want more? Comb the archives.
The Food Corps co-founder
Flatbreads from around the continent
Beyond a supporting role