Ketchup (or is it catsup), mustard, barbecue and more…
No matter how avid their appreciation of winter and its cold icy charms might be, it’s a rare Alaskan—no matter where in the world they find themselves—who doesn’t appreciate the sunny days of summer. And with those summer days, whether one is meat, veg, or both, comes the smoke of both fires and barbecue.
We might think of barbecue, along with apple pie, as quintessentially American, but its roots lay much further back. In 1697, William Dampier, an English explorer who circumnavigated the globe three times, wrote of meeting a Moskito Indian on Juan Fernandez Island off the coast of Chile. He writes that this unnamed island dweller
"had a little house or hut half a mile from the sea, which was lined with goat’s skin; his couch or barbecue of sticks lying along about two foot distant from the ground…"
The word Dampier recorded as barbecue was the Spanish barbacoa, used at the time to refer to a wooden frame that could be used for sleeping on as well as suspending food over a fire for cooking or drying. The Spanish Barbacoa now includes a meaning similar to the English barbecue and might be familiar to non-Spanish speakers as a particularly tasty kind of taco. Barbacoa was itself borrowed from the Haitian barbacòa, a "framework of sticks set upon posts."
It stands to reason, then, that barbecue sauce has a long and varied history, essentially being any sauce that was used for grilling, arguably including chimichurri, hoisin, tandoori, galbi, and brown sauces. In America, barbecue sauces go back at least to the earliest days of the founding of the American colonies and few things spark more debate among grill folk than the best barbecue sauce and its proper application, whether it be the ubiquitous thick and sweet Kansas City sauce, the thin and tart East Carolina sauce, the mustard-laden South Carolina sauce, the Mexican-influenced Texas-style sauce—well, you get the picture.
Within the bases of this surfeit of sauces lie other condiments that feel as American as hot dogs and apple pie—mustard and ketchup—that have interesting histories of their own.
Mustard, which dates back to the late 13th century, comes from the Old French mostarde, the name of the plants whose crushed seeds formed a paste that was both a sauce and a medicine (as the condiment still is today for some of us). Mostarde comes from the Latin mustum (new wine), a concoction of must (unfermented grape juice) and mustard seeds from which the relatively short-lived english term for a new wine—"new must"—came.
Based on its piquancy and zest, other uses of the word mustard, good and not so good, emerged. Mustard gas, despite the name, doubly wrongs the great condiment given that it contains no mustard—the name comes from its color and strong smell—nor is it even a gas.
The strength of mustard’s taste does give us the use of mustard as a metaphor for something powerful, biting or strong, such as "putting mustard" on a baseball pitch. To "cut the mustard," which first appears in print in the 1890s, is to set a standard or meet expectations and derives from the same figurative idea of mustard as a superlative, not as the interesting etymythologies would have it as either a corruption of muster, as in to muster the troops, or the folk etymology I like best, that it took a lot of strength to wield a scythe on the durable mustard plant, so to do it well was to literally cut the mustard.
In fact, mustard has become so associated with these positive figural traits that it is literally used to mean good, excellent, or great, as in "that movie was mustard."
Ketchup, the 2nd most popular hot-dog condiment, but number one in the burger-verse, has a fittingly long and varied history. First recorded in 1682, ketchup — k-e-t-c-h-u-p — most likely comes from the Chinese koechiap—or brine of fish—via the Malayan kichap — k-i-c-h-a-p — a fish sauce. There’s no doubt the earliest ketchups were fish-based—a 1683 cookbook directs the reader to:
Take some Mutton or Beef gravy, and shred into it a Shalot or two, and a little Pepper, half a spoonful of Ketchup, or if you have no Ketchup, then put in one Anchovy.
As words often do, ketchup came to be used to refer to an array of sauces and gravies, many of which weren’t tomato-based at all…a sensible choice given that English-speaking people believed tomatoes to be poisonous through the end of the 17th century. Early ketchup recipes are exemplified by those found in William Kichiner’s 1817 Cook’s Oracle, which Etymology Online notes contains "7 pages of recipes" for ketchups
including walnut, mushroom, oyster, cockle and mussel, tomata, white (vinegar and anchovies figure in it), cucumber, and pudding catsup.
Chambers’s Encyclopaedia, that most useful of sites goes on to say,
lists mushroom, walnut, and tomato ketchup as "the three most esteemed kinds."
Speaking of evolving meanings, ketchup—sometimes called "red lead" by US Navy sailors—is also a slang term for ecstacy, of the chemical rather than condimental kind, as in "we had a lot of ketchup at the old warehouse last night."
Finally, about the great ketchup with a k vs catsup with a cat debate: as with many words that are approximations of a foreign term, a multitude of different spellings emerged before these two emerged as top contenders. Jonathan Swift is credited with the first written use of catsup-with-a-c in 1730, and the two forms have been duking it out ever since, with the k-spelling prevailing in American English (for now) thanks to Del Monte, Hunts and Heinz all changing to that spelling by the late 80s. However you spell it, just call it ketchup because, as Bryan Garner puts it in his authoritative Garner’s Modern American Usage, "/kat-səp/ is pretentious."