A Fruity L.A. Catsup From 1881 Made With Plums

There are eight catsup recipes in Vintage California Cuisine. Three of them are tomato-based. The starring ingredients in the other five range from walnuts to grapes. I’m looking forward to trying them all, eventually. But during my most recent visit to Los Angeles in September, when meaty prune plums were piled high at the Santa Monica farmers market, deciding which of the eight to start with was a no-brainer: plum catsup. 

The recipe is from Los Angeles Cookery, published in 1881 by the Ladies’ Aid Society of the Fort Street Methodist Episcopal Church. Those ladies evidently really liked catsup, in an array of variations. The cookbook includes recipes for tomato, grape and currant catsup, in addition to this recipe that I tested, for catsup made with plums:

Plum Catsup 

Boil together for two hours nine pounds of seeded plums, six pounds of sugar, and three pints of the best cider vinegar. Just before removing from the fire add one tablespoonful each of cloves and allspice.

Source: Los Angeles Cookery (1881)

I did not need anywhere near the quantity that I would have ended up with if I had followed the recipe to a t, using nine pounds of seeded plums. So I started with a pound of fruit, using a mixture of Italian

French and Italian prune plums

and French prune plums from the farmers market. To keep faith with the original recipe, using about one-ninth of the quantities for the other ingredients, I should have used two-thirds of a pound of sugar. But my health-conscious daughter, with whom I was staying in Los Angeles at the time, had only a one-pound box of white sugar neglected in the back of her pantry that was a little less than half full. So that’s the amount of sugar I used, about two-fifths of a pound, departing from the original recipe somewhat, without harming the finished product in the least. I stuck with the recipe on the amount of vinegar, using three-quarters of a cup, which is one-ninth of three pints. I cooked the plums, skins and all, in the vinegar for two hours on a very low boil, added at the last minute one-third of a teaspoon each (ie. one-ninth of a tablespoon) of cloves and allspice, and spun the mixture briefly in a blender (yes, admittedly departing once again from the 1881 recipe). I was left with about a pint of thick, fruity, pungent – and by the account of all of my taste-testers delicious – plum catsup. It would be good, I think, with Thanksgiving turkey and even better on a post-Thanksgiving turkey sandwich.

About Mark

Mark Thompson, who currently resides in Philadelphia, writes about law, history and food, among other topics. American Character, his biography of Charles Lummis, an Indian rights activist who lived in California and the Southwest from the 1880s through the 1920s, was honored by Western Writers of America in 2002 with a Spur Award for best biography. His second book, Vintage California Cuisine, traces the origins of the state's unique culinary sensibility to the earliest cookbooks published in California. Thompson also publishes a web site called SeasonalChef.com, about farmers markets and seasonal produce. He has written for dozens of publications including the Atlantic, The New Republic, the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times.
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