Fighting Fungus with Fungus: Mushroom Ketchup as Food and Medicine

 Lyn Bennett

[This is the third in a series of posts on the Early Modern Maritime Recipes database. The entire series can be found here.]

A widely used ingredient in meat-based dishes, mushroom catsup (or ketchup) was inspired by a fermented Chinese fish sauce and bears little resemblance to the ubiquitous tomato version. Neither sweet nor fruity, mushroom catsup was a highly seasoned brown sauce used primarily in fish and meat dishes and, according to the Smithsonian, first appeared as a recipe for “katchup” in Eliza Smith’s 1727 The Compleat Housewife. Recipes specifying mushroom catsup as an ingredient can be found in Richard Bradley’s 1732 The Country Housewife, where it is mixed with onion, white wine, horseradish, anchovy, and herbs in a “Sauce for boil’d Fish” and combined with butter, white wine, beef gravy, and anchovy in directions for serving fish during the month of March.[1] A recipe for mushroom ketchup appeared also in Sarah Harrison’s 1733 The House-Keeper’s Pocket-Book, a volume offering the subtitular claim of “above three hundred curious and uncommon receipts” that included a sauce to be served as an accompaniment to “Beef Steaks with Oysters.” Specifying that the “Oyster Liquor” poured off pre-cooked oysters be mixed with “a little Mace or Nutmeg, some whole Pepper, a Clove or two” and finished with “a little white Wine, and a piece of  Butter roll’d in Flour to thicken it,” Harrison notes that adding “an Anchovy or Mushroom-ketchup” to the sauce is optional but “will make it very rich.”[2]

Making Mushroom Catsup. Photo by Lyn Bennett

Popular in England, mushroom catsup made its way also to North America, where it appeared in cookbooks such as the 1845 Montreal publication Modern Practical Cookery, which offers directions “To Make Mushroom Ketchup,”[3] and the 1841 edition of The American Housewife, which specifies a process for making “Mushroom Catsup” that begins with layering salt and mushrooms to “remain several days.”[4] Recipes for the condiment differ, but all describe extracting mushroom liquid through salting and simmering, squeezing the mushrooms in cheesecloth, and adding spices such as pepper and ginger to the extracted liquid. As I discovered in making the Early Modern Maritime Recipes version of mushroom catsup, it takes a lot of mushrooms to make even a small bottle of sauce. In the long Maritime autumns, however, mushrooms would have been plentiful, and foraged fungi would need to be made into a sauce or dried for preservation over the winter and into the following year. That mushrooms were abundant and readily available is further confirmed by the inclusion of mushroom catsup as an ingredient in Canadian and American cookbooks well into the twentieth century, where it sometimes appears as an alternative to Worcestershire sauce.

Written on a sheet of paper and pasted into a book of militia regulations, the EMMR version of mushroom catsup specifies the same ingredients and uses near-identical phrasing to a recipe “To Make Mushroom Catsup” published in Elizabeth Raffald’s 1799 The Experienced English Housekeeper.[5] The self-styled former housekeeper to Lady Elizabeth Warburton, Raffald also offers a recipe “To Make Mushroom Powder”[6] immediately following the instructions for mushroom catsup, suggesting in doing so how one might use the many mushrooms remaining after they’ve provided the base for the savoury sauce. Raffald’s mushroom catsup is put to use as an ingredient in recipes “To Dress a Turtle”[7] and to prepare a “Mock Turtle” made from “the largest calf’s head you can get”[8]; it is also poured on broiled mutton steaks,[9] specified among the ingredients for a roux used in making “hash Mutton,”[10] combined with lemon in preparing the poultry dish described as “hash Fowls,”[11]  and included in directions for how “to ragoo Pig’s Feet and Ears.”[12] Applied to game as well, mushroom catsup is combined with anchovy in fricasseeing rabbits[13] and mixed with red wine and walnuts in preparing Raffald’s “Ducks à-la-mode.[14]

Catsup recipe, image and transcription, Early Modern Maritime Recipes database

Cookbooks and recipe collections like Raffald’s also offer instructions for preparing a variety of drinks as well as things like cosmetics and household necessities. The EMMR database includes those categories as well as instructions for preparing products useful in construction, agriculture, and medicine. Though the latter is the largest category in the EMMR database, with medicine representing almost 50% of the items so far collected, some of those remedies fall also into the category of food. Blackberry jelly, for example, is a clearly a food but is also specified as a treatment for kidney stones and other nephritic disorders. Extending the truism that food is medicine to its topical application, one remedy even recommends mushroom ketchup to treat ringworm.

Published in the Royal Gazette and the Nova Scotia Advertiser on 8 December 1789, the article titled “Ringworms” quotes from an “Extract of a letter from a Gentleman of the Faculty at Fort St. George” addressed to one “Doctor B. of the Bengal Establishment.” The letter refers specifically to the advice of Sir Paul Joddrell to suggest that, as a physician serving in India, he had discovered how best to “tend to the extirpation of that cruel and most tormenting of all maladies,” and that the solution to relieving the agonies of ringworm lies in a treatment “as simple as it is efficacious.” Relief, Joddrell discovered, can be found with “common mush-room ketchup” applied in “frequent embrocation or friction of the parts where the eruption prevails.” Though “simple as it appears,” the remedy has evidently “never been known to fail in removing the Ringworms” even “after every other no-strum has failed.” Sir Paul’s explanation for the treatment’s success, the letter goes on to explain, is “the known noxious property of the mushroom to all animalcula.” Efficacious against ringworm mushroom ketchup may be, but in concluding that “this Fungus is proved by this discovery to bear such enmity to the minute insect” that it will “totally exterminate the infection” is to miss the fact that ringworm is no worm at all, but merely a fungus by another name.

Lyn Bennett, Associate Professor of English at Dalhousie University, teaches classes on rhetoric, writing, and early modern literature. Her interest in the history of medicine extends also to the Early Modern Maritime Recipes project, a SSHRC-funded database produced in collaboration with Dr. Edith Snook of the University of New Brunswick. You can find her on Twitter at @Lyn3690.


[1] R. Bradley, The Country Housewife and Lady’s Director (London: D. Browne, 1732), p. 35; pp. 30-31.

[2] Sarah Harrison, The House-Keeper’s Pocket-Book: and Compleat Family Cook (London: T. Worrall, 1733), pp. 49-50.

[3] Mrs. Nourse, Modern Practical Cookery, Pastry, Confectionery, Pickling and Preserving (Montreal: Armour and Ramsay, 1845), p. 345.

[4] An Experienced Lady, The American Housewife and Kitchen Directory, 3rd Edition (New York: Dayton and Saxton, 1841), p. 29.

[5] Elizabeth Raffald, The Experienced English Housekeeper (London: R. Baldwin, 1799), p. 339.

[6] Ibid., p. 340.

[7] Ibid., pp. 15-16.

[8] Ibid., p. 82.

[9] Ibid., pp. 71-72.

[10] Ibid., p. 73.

[11] Ibid., p. 74.

[12] Ibid., p. 280.

[13] Ibid., p. 139.

[14] Ibid., p. 129.

Featured image: Catsup, Some Early 18th and 19th Century Recipes, pasted on pages of Militia Regulations, Nova Scotia Archives, MG 100 Vol 1 No 5 Reel 786. Reproduced with permission at the Early Modern Maritime Recipes project.

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