One of my favorite parts of A Prairie Home Companion are the commercials "brought to you by the Ketchup Advisory Board." How I wish I could snag a seat on that board; I'm sure I would qualify, as I eat ketchup, love ketchup and have made ketchup.
Growing up, the shelves in our basement (and also in the basements of both sets of grandparents) were lined with jeweled jars of canned goods. Grape jelly, apple butter, sauerkraut, pickled beets, pickled green beans, pickled pickles. But primarily, tomatoes. Whole tomatoes. Tomato sauce. Tomato juice. Chili sauce. And ketchup.
Canning is hot and sweaty business, starting in the garden. We'd pick early in the morning, but in Indiana, August early mornings can still be brutally hot. After we'd haul our bushel baskets up to the house, we'd peel and snap and chop and cook, then mom would ladle the vegetables into hot sterilized jars to be processed in the canner or pressure cooker. When I was a little girl, I heard a horror story about a woman whose pressure cooker blew up in her kitchen, burning her with the scalding water and cutting her with shards of the jars; I've had a huge fear of pressure cookers ever since. As the dial on the cooker would work its way up, I'd work my way out of the kitchen, and try to get mom to get out, too. But she said that if you did it right, and kept an eye on the gauge, it would be fine, and it always was.
The best part of the whole process was listening for the "pop" of the lids as each jar cooled and sealed itself, sitting out on our dining room table. Each pop put a satisfied little smile on mom's face. She kept a tally of the pops, and after a few hours, she would run her fingers over the top of each jar, feeling for the dent left by the sealing; any jars not sealed would be served for supper.
One day, in the middle of canning season, dad came home with a big copper pot -- it probably held around 20-30 gallons. He spent the next few days welding together an iron base with a swinging arm and then fashioning a wooden stirrer -- a paddle angled on the end of a long wooden handle, so we could stir but not get burned. Time to make ketchup!
Dad set up the fire between the house and the barn. We poured bushels of chunked-up tomatoes into the pot, along with vinegar, sugar and spices -- cinnamon and cloves, I remember. Then dad swung the pot over the fire, and it cooked. And cooked. And cooked and cooked and cooked, and filled the whole yard with the sweet spicy aroma. (It makes my mouth water, just remembering how great that smelled!) We all took turns stirring the ketchup, which was great fun at first, but quickly turned into a hot, miserable job. Mom brought out the kitchen timer, and we'd each stir for 10 minutes, passing the paddle on to the next kid as soon as we heard the ding.
Meanwhile, mom had washed and sterilized several cases of dad's Miller High Life bottles, and had them lined up and ready on the counter. When the ketchup had cooked down to his satisfaction, dad swung the pot from over the fire, and used a kitchen pot to ladle the hot ketchup into the canner, which he carefully carried into the kitchen. Mom ran the mixture through the food mill to remove seeds and peels, and then poured the ketchup into the beer bottles through a funnel.
I wish I could remember what happened next. Did mom process the bottles? Did we cap them first, or wait until the ketchup cooled? I do remember the fun of the capper -- lining up the bottle just right, setting the cap on and pushing down hard on the handle until the cap crimped around the bottle top nice and tight. (I found this picture of a bottle capper on another blog --it's just like the one we had.)
I would like to lie to you and tell you how much I loved that ketchup. But I didn't. When I was in the third grade, I was allowed to stay overnight with my best friend, Jenny. Jenny was so exotic -- she lived in town with her father and her Southern grandmother, and that night for supper they had fried chicken and french fries, which they ate with a knife and fork. Most amazingly, they ate store-bought ketchup that flowed like a river out of a brightly labeled bottle with a white twisty cap. It was smooth and bright red, so unlike the deep red, slightly chunky, slightly watery junk that came out of the re-used beer bottles. I was in ketchup heaven. Until Jenny's father snapped at me and slapped my hand for reaching for a french fry with my fingers. (Yes, you are right -- I never stayed overnight there again.)
Every time we went to the grocery after that, I begged my mom for store-bought ketchup, just like I had begged for store-bought milk after drinking out of the little cartons in kindergarten.
I didn't get it. In more ways than one.
In my basement freezer, I have one jar of strawberry jam from the last batch mom ever made. And I have one bag of hickory nuts that she picked out, sitting in her chair in the family room, watching TV with dad. How I wish I had a bottle of ketchup to round out my collection.