Dress up that taste

October 01, 2003|by KATE COLEMAN

Sure, taste is one of the human five senses, stimulated when the tastebuds detect something sweet, sour, salty or bitter. But there is so much more.

People could survive just by eating plain, unadorned, nonenhanced food. But there's a desire for more.

Look at the spice and seasoning section of your grocery-store shelf. Think about all the condiments available. There are ketchups and mustards. There are relishes, chutneys, Worcestershire, salsas, steak and soy sauces.

The list seems endless, but why do we need so many spices, seasonings and condiments?

People want to enhance or sharpen the taste of food, says author Sidney Mintz, whose books include "Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History."


To seek different flavors is human, Mintz says. "It is only we who seem to care about contrast in our food."

An early reason for trying different substances was for their medicinal purposes, Mintz says.

A 17th-century French author cites differences in "temperaments" to justify the serving of many different dishes simultaneously. It was important to have something to accommodate differences in guests' "humors" and proportions thereof, be they "sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic or melancholic," according to "Food, A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present," by Albert Sonnenfeld.

Yes, everybody's taste is different, but there is some common ground.

Harry Balzer's job is to watch what people eat. He is vice president of NPD Group, a marketing research firm that surveys and reports what Americans are eating. His subjects agree to keep diaries of what they eat for two weeks.

Balzer's numbers reveal that ketchup is the most consumed condiment: Within the next two weeks, 47 percent of Americans will eat ketchup at least once.

Mustard ranks second with 43 percent of people including it in a meal.

In Balzer's survey, mayonnaise, at 31 percent, is counted in the salad dressing category.

Other sauces and flavorings counted among the condiments include gravy, 27 percent; barbecue sauce, 18 percent; soy sauce, 6 percent; and steak sauce, 4 percent.

While it may seem that Americans are eating more salsa and picante sauce, Balzer's survey shows that only 12 percent of Americans will eat salsa in the next two weeks.

Salsa may rank higher in sales figures than ketchup, Balzer says, because the cost is higher.

Ketchup, however, still is king. Perhaps almost always thought of as the tomatoey sauce used on hamburgers, ketchup is thought to have originated in Asia as a salty, fish-based sauce.

The source of the name also has a few possibilities. Was it "ketsiap" from China? "Kechap" from Malaysia, or "ketjap" from Indonesia? Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby ask the question in "Salsas, Sambals, Chutneys & Chowchows."

Ketchup, or catsup - the name even varies in English - appeared in Europe in the 17th century with a vinegar and spice base, since fish brine wasn't a common ingredient. Ketchup was more than a tomato sauce and was used mainly as a preservative. Ketchup was made from many ingredients, including mushrooms, walnuts and horseradish root, Schlesinger and Willoughby write.

Elizabeth Smith printed the first recipe for ketchup in 1727 in "The Compleat Houswife," according to Kimberly Skopitz in "A brief history of ketchup" in PageWise Inc., online at The concoction called for anchovies, shallots, vinegar, white wine, sweet spices (cloves, ginger, mace, nutmeg), pepper and lemon peel.

The first tomato ketchup recipe was published 85 years later in Nova Scotia by James Mease. He refered to the condiment as "love apple ketchup," Skopitz continues, citing an unproven French influence.

Mustard is the oldest known condiment, writes Barry Levenson, curator of the Mount Horeb Mustard Museum in Mount Horeb, Wis., at on the Web. The museum, founded in 1992, has 3,700 mustards in its collection.

Mustard seeds have been found in tombs of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs. Ancient Romans used them in some of their sauces. The type of condiment with which we're familiar is made from seeds of the mustard plant combined with liquid - water, wine, beer, etc. It dates back to the 14th century, maybe earlier, Levenson writes.

References to mustard in the Dijon region of France date to the 14th century, but Levenson says monks developed the "art" of making mustard years earlier. He calls Dijon mustard the standard against which all others are measured.

The development of mustard was different in England, Levenson says. Tewkesbury became famous for its thick horseradish mustard in the mid-1600s.

In 1804, Jeremiah Colman began milling mustard seed at Norwich. Colman's mustard still is available - even in American supermarkets.

Americans didn't use much mustard until the beginning of the 20th century, Levenson writes. Francis French, a New York spice merchant, came up with a mild yellow mustard sauce that quickly became popular. J.W. Raye was producing a similar mustard sauce for the sardine packing industry.

There are claims that the two had a "gentlemen's agreement" by which French would stay out of the sardine market and Raye would stay out of the then speculative domestic household market, Levenson says.

With the bright yellow condiment, French appears to have scored the better part of the deal.

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