The meteoric North American rise of the Big Three condiments

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You know the triad we’re talking about: ketchup, mustard, relish. Here’s how they became condiment heroes.

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Pope John XXll, H.J. Heinz and Ernest Hemingway walk into a bar.

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Let’s make it a hot-dog bar to keep things family-friendly. Better yet, it’s a hot-dog stand at a World’s Fair, since that’s where North America’s Big Three condiments began their rise to fame.

You know the triad we’re talking about: ketchup, mustard, relish. Here’s how they became condiment heroes.

Ketchup

We begin our journey with the precursor to the ketchup you have close at hand. It is believed to have begun as a fermented fish sauce from southern China called ke-tchup. Eventually sauces made with mushrooms or walnuts or whatever was near at hand became known as ketchup.

What’s near at hand in North America? Why, tomatoes, of course, and in Philadelphia in 1812, a tomato ketchup debuted. Sixty-four years later, a fellow by the name of H.J. Heinz revolutionized the sweet and saucy condiment by adding vinegar and even more sugar.

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He put the shelf-stable staple into glass bottles so consumers could see what they were getting. The craftiest among them learned to slide a knife into the opening to get the ketchup flowing. The rest of us turned it over and banged on the bottom till half a bottle spewed all over our fries.

Heinz brought it to the Philadelphia World’s Fair in 1876 and the Paris World’s Fair in 1889 (where he won the Grand Prix for his India relish). Yet the best thing that happened to him was being given a crappy booth on the second floor of the Agricultural Building at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. Desperate for attention, Heinz started giving away tiny plastic pickle “watch charms” to anyone who visited the booth. The second floor was in danger of collapse, but the company gave away one million pickle charms.

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Relish

Chutneys and pickled vegetables are fancy foods. Their sweet and mild progeny is not as lavish but arguably more beloved.

Ernest Hemingway, in one of his many notes to his household staff in Cuba, gave very detailed instructions on how to make a pan-friend hamburger, including “a dollop of India relish.”

Those little fast-food packets of relish, though. You can’t squeeze a chunky sauce out of a plastic envelope. The plastic gets slippery if you use your teeth and what even are those jagged edges for because it takes some kind of genius to tear it open. It builds up an appetite, at least, but after all that work, there’s so little product … barely even a Hemingway dollop.

Mustard

Mustard, which has been used for millennia as a spice and flavouring, is surrounded by great folklore.

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In the 14th century, Pope John XXII is said to have appointed his lazy nephew the Grand Moustardier du Pape. Although the rumour has not been confirmed, the phrase is used to refer to a person with an inflated sense of self-importance.

That’s around the time Dijon mustard was establishing itself in France, where the condiment is tightly regulated to this day.

Rochester, N.Y., brothers George and Francis French introduced their Classic Yellow Mustard at — you guessed it — a World’s Fair, this time in St. Louis in 1904.

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