Catsup, Refrigeration, & Department Store Dining

It’s the twentieth century in the United States and department store restaurants are widely known as one of the few ways women can dine while on the go. Usually, women would have to go home for lunch after shopping downtown since dining in the city without being escorted by a man was considered unladylike and almost scandalous. The emergence of department store restaurants or tea rooms finally allowed women to enjoy a nice meal with tea all in one building. There was no more making several trips to finish one’s shopping and needing a man just so one could eat in the city.

The first tea room in the United States was opened at Marshall Field & Company Chicago in 1890 by Harry Gordon Selfridge, a partner in the firm. Its namesake was founded in 1856 by Marshall Field, who was determined to make his creation unique among the other institutions in the retail world. Believed to be the “Grande Dame of Grande Dame American department stores,” Marshall Field & Company set a standard for its business with its “reputation for quality”, “status as a civic institution”, and the building’s architectural brilliance. Field wanted aimed for the store’s “tone” to always be aristocratic but also “loving and welcoming”. Field even created an inspiring motto for the store that read:

To do the right thing, at the right time, in the right way;

to do some things better than they were done before;

to eliminate errors; to know both sides of the question;

to be courteous; to be an example; to love our work;

to anticipate requirements; to develop resources;

to recognize no impediments; to master circumstances;

to act from reason rather than rule;

to be satisfied with nothing short of perfection.

Field’s high standard for his store did not falter when it involved the dining areas in the department store either. In John Drury’s book, Dining in Chicago, he acknowledges Marshall Field & Company as “world-famed” with the “most widely known and elegant of the shopper’s tea rooms on State Street,” the Narcissus Fountain Room. Drury describes the “decoration, atmosphere, service, and foods” as being on the same level as first-class eateries and hotels.

The menu I chose from Marshall Field & Company Chicago is from August 11, 1919. The names and amount of tea rooms and grills in Marshall Field & Company Chicago change during its long history until it is eventually bought out by Macy’s in 2006 but in 1919 there are seven. The seven tea rooms and grills in Marshall Field & Company Chicago include: Narcissus Fountain Room, North Grill Room, South Grill or Circassian Walnut Room, Wabash Avenue Tea Room, Middle Tea Room, Wedgwood Room, and the Men’s Grill Room. I will be focusing on the Narcissus Fountain Room, which was on the seventh floor with the rest of the dining rooms. The menu had two hundred and seventy-one dishes and was sixteen pages long with prices ranging from fifteen cents to two dollars. The menu comprises of relishes, soups, Ready to Serve meals, cold dishes, desserts, preserved fruits, and much more. With Deviled Fresh Crabs, Broiled Milk-fed Spring Chicken, Creamed Sweetbreads, Hot Roast Beef Sandwiches, and Peach Pie there was no lack of variety on the menu. Yet amid the numerous delectable dishes that the Narcissus Fountain Tea Room had to offer there was only one simple dish I could not stop thinking about. Interestingly enough that dish was, grape catsup.

The fourth page of the Narcissus Fountain Tea Room menu (1919)

It could be safe to say that having the word catsup on a modern-day menu would be unusual especially if it was grape flavored. In Andrew Smith’s book, Pure Ketchup: A History of America’s National Condiment, he talks about the lengthy and ever-changing history of ketchup. The etymological origin of the word is confusing because of the numerous claims of its true origin deriving from East Asian, French, Spanish, and Arabic regions. Overall, all these areas agree that the word means it is a type of sauce that involves pickling with vinegar. As a result of all this confusion, Smith believes that ketchup is “among the few commonly eaten products with no agreed upon spelling” with ketchup, catchup, or catsup still being used today (Smith 4-6). 

To understand why a dish like grape catsup would be on such a distinguished menu like Narcissus Fountain Tea Room’s, one must first understand the context in which grape catsup was in during the twentieth century. According to Smith, “ketchup’s major claim to fame was its purported ability to survive for long periods of time”. Ketchups made from mushrooms, oysters, walnuts, and grapes were used as ways to preserve the product therefore countless techniques were created to prolong ketchup’s shelf life in the home (Smith 23-24). Ketchups needed this preservation process because of the low popularity of refrigeration in the United States at the time. American households did not start its adoption of refrigerators, the first stage of it at least, until the 1920s. Since the Narcissus menu is from 1919, it is just at the cusp of this transition into household refrigerators becoming common among Americans. It is not until 1944 that eighty five percent of American homes have refrigerators.

As refrigerators become popular, the need for labor intensive tasks like pickling or manual food preservation decreases. Now, all consumers cared about was that the food they needed preserved stayed cold (Rees 54-164). The changes made toward moving away from homemade ketchup seemed to happen swiftly. Cookbooks published ketchup little to no recipes and results from a 1904 survey showed that “only one-sixth of the respondents consumed homemade ketchup.” Smith states that one of the reasons for homemade ketchup’s downfall is because of commercial ketchup’s availability. Smith quotes one food writer from 1901 who says that making homemade ketchup was a “positively unpleasant” process of fruit picking, boiling, and stirring for hours. Smith claims commercial ketchup as the “less expensive, less time-consuming, and more convenient” choice than making homemade ketchup (Smith 27-28).

Americans were transitioning into eating outside of the home more around the 1920s, which I think is the reason why consumers had all those same benefits of inexpensive, less time consuming, and convenient ketchup when enjoying a side of grape catsup at the Narcissus Fountain Tea Room as well. One does not have to spend long periods of hard labor over a stove to create fresh ketchup anymore when one can go to the Marshall Field & Company store downtown. Since ketchup was in between two important culinary transitions, it makes sense why grape catsup would be a choice on the Narcissus menu. With household refrigerators becoming commonplace and families leaving the home to eat a good meal, ketchup begans to live in a space where it is still the product you love with none of the effort and all the accessibility.

For some reason I wanted to take part in the “positively unpleasant” experience of making homemade ketchup. I used two recipes.

The reason that I used two recipes is because the one on the left (let’s call that one recipe 1) did not explicitly give time measurements for the cooking process like the recipe 2 did. I liked the spices in the recipe 1 better (and the fact that I had all of them in my kitchen cabinet) so I decided to stick with recipe 1’s ingredients but use recipe 2’s cooking instructions.

Another adjustment I made was cutting the ingredients in half since I did not want to end up with four or more mason jars of grape catsup. Four mason jars of grape catsup would practically be a lifetime supply for me.

The Ingredients

Truthfully, the cooking process, which took about an hour, was not very difficult since there was long periods of just waiting for the grapes to break down. The smell that the grapes and spices made after being combined was extremely pleasant and reminded me of a sweet holiday candle. I tasted the catsup with some club crackers and thought it tasted pretty good. According to various grape catsup recipes, the catsup goes best with poultry so I am hoping I will be able to taste this with some baked chicken soon.

The Finished Product

My only suggestion would be to use a blender to break down the grape skins even more. Overall, I am happy with how the recipe came out and will consider looking into the past for more recipes in the future.

Nondigital References:

Smith, Andrew F. Pure Ketchup: A History of America’s National Condiment. Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001, pp. 4-162

Rees, Jonathan. Refrigeration Nation : A History of Ice, Appliances, and Enterprise in America. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013, pp. 54-164