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The Secret Lives of 4 Common Condiments

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They rest in your fridge or kitchen pantry, minding their own business. But your condiments have lives beyond your dinner plate. Sometimes the secrets are ancient and shrouded in mystery. Sometimes they're the result of business and culinary wrangling. But they all add a new, deeper dimension to that sauce you slop on your plate.

 

1. WORCESTER OR WORCESTERSHIRE SAUCE

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WHAT YOU THINK IT IS: A difficult-to-pronounce mixture with an old-time label.
ITS SECRET: Behind that label, you'll find a tale of empire, British chemists, and an accidental discovery.

The sauce you know and (possibly) love was first made in England’s Worcester County, but its true origins are in South Asia. Lord Sandys, a British nobleman, had spent time in Bengal in the early 1800s and became enamored with a local sauce.

When he came home, he gave a recipe to a pair of local chemists—John Lea and William Perrins. They whipped up a batch but found the taste decidedly disagreeable. Perhaps wanting to spare themselves from any unpleasantness with the lord, they packed the mixture away in the cellar and forgot all about it.

Years later, they came upon their containers of sauce and—being true tinkerers of the old school—decided to taste it. They found that aging had mellowed the flavor, producing a delicious result. The sauce, named Lea and Perrins after its accidental creators, became an instant hit in Europe after going on sale in 1838 and was imported to the United States the next year.

2. TOMATO KETCHUP

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WHAT YOU THINK IT IS: An all-American tomato reduction that goes great on everything.
ITS SECRET: An ancient sauce achieved its modern form by avoiding preservatives.

Ketchup has been around in various forms since at least the 1600s. Some of these early versions were based on mushrooms and fish. It wasn’t until the early 1800s that tomato variants became popular (many people still believed that tomatoes were poisonous). Even then, the sauce was thin and watery.

But change was in the air in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Commercial food production was spreading, and the tomato ketchups available were awful, and loaded with preservatives. Coal tar was tossed in to make the sauce red.

Food magnate Henry J. Heinz thought he could do better. He set his chief food scientist, G.F. Mason, the task of finding a tomato ketchup recipe that didn’t use preservatives. Mason came up with a recipe in 1904—it used ripe tomatoes, whose pectin helped make a thicker sauce, and more salt, sugar, and vinegar than competitors' concoctions. The natural preservative qualities of those ingredients meant Heinz could avoid, say, benzoic acid, and offer an all-natural product.

He put the finished result in a clear bottle to highlight its freshness, and within two years the Heinz company was cranking out five million bottles of the stuff.

3. MAYONNAISE

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WHAT YOU THINK IT IS: A comforting white concoction that you never want to leave outside the fridge.
ITS SECRET: Despite an unsanitary reputation, mayonnaise has a secret life as a germ-fighter.

Ask anyone who cooks, and they will probably warn you about mayonnaise. It goes bad easily, they claim. Watch out for food poisoning!

As a matter of fact, though, mayonnaise's reputation is almost entirely undeserved. The modern condiment is made using pasteurized eggs, meaning there’s little risk of salmonella. And the spread includes lots of salt, vinegar, and lemon juice. Some studies have suggested that the high acidity and salt level in modern, commercially produced mayo can actually slow the growth of bacteria, or even prevent it entirely.

So why the bad rap? It’s simple. Mayonnaise is an emulsion, which means that it’s made from two base ingredients that don’t mix naturally (in this case, oil and either vinegar or lemon juice). To make the ingredients cohere, you need an emulsifier—and egg yolk is the most common. Homemade versions often call for raw eggs, which can be risky.

There’s another problem, too. Mayo is often used with chicken, potatoes, ham, and other low-acid foods that can be at risk of bacterial contamination. But don’t blame the spread!

4. SOY SAUCE

WHAT YOU THINK IT IS: A salty concoction used in Asian cuisine.
ITS SECRET: It’s produced by an ancient family business spreading its influence around the globe.

Soy sauce can be traced back to the ancient Chinese jiang, a combination of preserved foods with spices. Jiang was created in several ways—some used meat and seasonings, some used fish and seasonings, and some used grain and seasonings.

That last variety of jiang (often made from soybeans and wheat) was the ancestor of modern soy sauce. The sauce made its way to Japan, evolved a bit, and by the 1600s was a fixture in the island nation. At the same time, the Mogi and Takanashi families started brewing the stuff. The small businesses grew, and in 1917, the Mogi and Takanashi operations, along with others, were merged into the Noda Shoyu Co.

In 1964, that company changed its name to Kikkoman. That means that the most common name in soy sauce has been manufactured by a line that goes back further than three centuries. (And the company hasn’t stopped growing, either; the company now ships its soy sauce to more than 100 countries around the world.)

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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