With Natural Mellowing Agents

Tis the season for ketchup. You could grow your own tomatoes and create a thick red sap. Or, you could buy locally crafted artisanal ketchup.

This is ketchup you want to dip your spoon into and eat from the jar.

Gloppy, thick and dark red, it wasn’t created to squirt from a plastic container, but to release the sweet-and-savory richness of a Jersey tomato in your mouth.

It could be used as a secret ingredient in braised tofu, or in a tongue-tingling cocktail sauce.

Then again, you could put it on a hamburger.

Made in small batches from sustainably grown, vine-ripened fruit, along with onions, cider vinegar, organic sugar and spices, First Field ketchup contains Vitamin C — it just might be classifiable as a vegetable, as President Ronald Reagan famously tried to do in the ‘80s.

It all began four summers ago when Theresa Viggiano, a Ph.D. candidate in medical sociology at Rutgers, rented an apartment on 100 acres of farmland in Griggstown and grew a surfeit of tomatoes. The New Jersey native takes the “Garden” in the state’s moniker seriously, and while the rest of us were battling deer, groundhogs, blight and beetles, she and her housemates grew a bumper crop. After canning as much as she could, she turned to ketchup.

THESE ARE THE GOOD YEARS

Prairie Home Companion’s Catchup Advisory Board spoofs the “natural mellowing agents” of the condiment, but ketchup has a long history of gastronomic satisfaction. Sometimes spelled catsup, and variously called tomato sauce and red sauce in England, Scotland and Wales, ketchup is believed to have originated as a fish sauce in China (ke-tsiap) in the late 1600s, then traveled to Malaysia where it was called kechap. Remember, tomatoes were first discovered in the New World and brought back to Europe by conquistadors before spreading to Asia.

A member of the nightshade family, the tomato was believed to be poisonous, especially if eaten raw, and was grown primarily as an ornamental. By the 1800s a recipe for ketchup evolved with cooked tomatoes, vinegar, spices and salt as a safe way to eat what the French called pomme d’amore, or apple of love.

Making ketchup was a long involved process, boiling out the liquid from the tomatoes and constantly stirring the heavy iron kettles, so when H.J. Heinz Co. introduced a commercially produced version at the Philadelphia Fair in 1872, along with a line of pickles, horseradish and sauerkraut, a legend was born.

CANADIAN ROOTS

Viggiano’s husband, Patrick Leger, spent the first 10 years of his life in Canada, where it is common to slather the red stuff on all kinds of food. “We put it on macaroni and cheese, grilled cheese and potatoes,” he says. “Although I was surprised to see it used on eggs in this country.” His family made their own ketchup for the holidays.

“In Canada they even make a Ketchup Cake,” quips Viggiano.

In the early 1900s, there were 50 companies making ketchup in New Jersey, according to Viggiano and Leger, whose reading list includes Pure Ketchup by culinary historian Andrew F. Smith, among other chronicles of the condiment. The last of those companies shut down mid century, when Campbell’s Soup bought 80 percent of the state’s tomatoes. “There’s a rich history of value-added products here. We’re not creating something new but going back in time,” says Viggiano.

“We saw ketchup as a product neglected by big companies that could be worked in a new way and support local agriculture,” says Leger. “Everyone was making barbecue sauce, but where was ketchup?”

Viggiano and Leger named their product First Field for the simple reason that the tomatoes were grown on plot number one in their field. They made the first batch at Elijah’s Promise Soup Kitchen’s culinary school in New Brunswick and sold it in an 8-ounce jar to the Whole Earth Center in Princeton, hoping for a soft launch. The product took off. It was written up in Edible Jersey Magazine, and when Whole Foods called and asked if they could sample the product, the couple had to rev up production for the chain’s northeastern region.

There are now 60 retailers from Brooklyn to Connecticut stocking First Field, and it is on the menu in restaurants in New York and New Jersey, including Elements in Princeton, Chambers Walk in Lawrenceville and Café 153 in Rocky Hill.

In addition to the 8-ounce jar, First Field ketchup comes in a 64-ounce bottle with a pump. “Some chefs use it as a secret sauce,” says Viggiano, “and some leave it out for customers to see.”

Did they ever imagine how wildly popular it would become? “Not really,” says Viggiano, who works full time as a project manager for the Institute for Healthcare Policy and Aging Research at Rutgers. “We knew it was a good product but thought we’d sell it at farm stands and at our house.”

Indeed they do sell at farmers markets: Princeton, West Windsor, and the New Amsterdam Market at the South Street Seaport in New York. (For a comprehensive list of where to purchase the ketchup, visit www.first-field.com.)

SECRET RECIPE

Among the many reasons Leger found himself attracted to Viggiano: she was living on a farm, she likes being outdoors and when she cooks, she to experiment. When the couple married in Montreal in 2009, they gave canned jams, jellies and ketchup as wedding favors to 120 guests.

“It’s difficult to make ketchup,” says Viggiano. “Most ketchup companies start with paste. We’re starting with fresh tomatoes and have to reduce it. It was hard to figure out the technique, but it’s what gives First Field its fresh taste.”

Viggiano would not disclose the variety of tomatoes used in her ketchup, but did say they are paste-type tomatoes. “The flavor of heirloom tomatoes is in the juice so it’s terrible for sauce,” she says. “Paste tomatoes are good for reducing, using less energy and having good flavor. We’re always experimenting.”

Another advantage of using fresh tomatoes is that only half the amount of sugar that large commercial manufacturers use is necessary — the sweetness comes from the tomato.

The sugar in First Field is organic, but the tomatoes are not. “There are not enough of the kinds of tomatoes we need grown organically in New Jersey,” says Viggiano, for whom sustainability is key. “It’s more important to work with growers in New Jersey than to go out of state for organic. We want to get there – it takes time. Transitioning to organic is a big process.”

The couple leases two acres on Mapleton Road in Kingston, the site of the former Princeton Nurseries, from D&R Canal State Park. In addition to making ketchup, Viggiano and Leger grow organic produce to sell to Lucy’s Ravioli, Café 153 and Elijah’s Promise Soup Kitchen’s Better World Cafe.

The produce for Elijah’s Promise is pro bono, “and we’re hoping to expand production for them because it’s a cause we believe in and a model for partnership,” says Viggiano. In turn, volunteers for Elijah’s Promise help First Field.

Farmers often give their overstock to food pantries, so the food pantry may wind up with more zucchini in August, for example, than they know what to with. Instead, First Field creates a dialogue with the soup kitchen to grow the crops that are truly needed.

“We feel strongly about giving back to the community,” says Viggiano. “It’s great to buy local, but we want those who can’t afford it to have it too.”

STARTING FROM SEED

The seed is started under lights at home in Griggstown, although they also buy transplants from a dedicated greenhouse.

Viggiano and Leger grow tomatoes for their restaurant partners, but they have a partner grower in Chesterfield for the ketchup tomatoes, Katona Farms, a fourth-generation farm family with 1,000 acres.

To keep up with demand, First Field uses a production facility in Bridgeton with a food scientist on staff who is part of Rutgers Food Innovation Center.

The couple tests small batches in a kitchen in Rocky Hill they share with IQuisine, whose campus catering business peaks during the academic year. First Field’s busiest season is summer. Here, they test new products, such as roasted pepper and spicy ketchup, and a relish they will introduce this year. Not yet 57 varieties, but counting.

It’s hard to staff a seasonal business. First Field has two hires working the farm during the growing season. A cousin from Canada, Sophie Lussier, designed the tomato art on the label. Viggiano and Leger do their own graphic design, and George Point of Lawrenceville helps with the website and branding. Since Viggiano and Leger cannot be everywhere, they hire staff for the farmers markets.

Thanks to a Value-Added grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, they plan to hire sales and marketing help. (A value-added product is one that starts with one agricultural product and turns it into another: milk to cheese, say, or tomatoes to ketchup.)

RISKY BUSINESS

Anyone who has grown a backyard tomato knows that by the time you add in fertilizer, fencing, mulch and everything else, you’re looking at a $200 tomato. Anyone who has made preserves knows the extraordinary amount of fruit and boiling that goes into it. So how does First Field run a profitable business? Viggiano and Leger credit the support of friends and family.

“Agriculture has a history of people having other jobs to help meet financial needs,” says Leger, who earned an M.B.A. from Vanderbilt University in 2002.  He is a certified financial analyst and managing partner, Giverny Capital on Nassau Street. (Yes, it is named for French Impressionist’s Claude Manet’s eponymous garden.)

“John Adams was an amazing farmer, but no one talks about that. Farming is a risky business, but you have to take one step at a time,” he says.

And how! Viggiano and Leger have a deer fence, but take it in stride that some of the crop will be lost to the groundhogs. “They instinctively know when it’s the day before harvest,” says Leger.

Last year was very wet, this year started off dry.

“It’s a humbling experience,” says Viggiano. “We stick to what works and change course if we need to.”

Leger likens farming to running an investment business. After working for Price Waterhouse and Steginksy Capital, he grew Giverny as a subsidiary from the Montreal-based firm. “As a farmer, you have to know the soil and its condition, what to plant, and the timing. What doesn’t work has to be pulled out. It’s similar to putting together a portfolio, and knowing how long you should hold on to something. You have to be attentive to the environment. I am building a garden and investing simultaneously.

“We see ourselves always doing academic research and finance, folding in First Field in a way that makes sense,” continues Leger. “There’s a romanticism with food and farms now, but can a family make a living on this? It can be dangerous if not done with financial responsiveness.”

But why sweat it? Ketchup has natural mellowing agents that make life better.

A version of this story originally appeared in Princeton Magazine.

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2 Responses to With Natural Mellowing Agents

  1. Ilene, as always, you are most informative and one always learns something new. Thanks for the enlightenment.

  2. Ilene, your writing just expands and expands – in quality, quantity, breadth and artistry — even about ketchup.

    Heartily agree re The Kechup- just told three Manhattan visitors, post-kayaking together, to go to Whole Earth and just ask for The Ketchup. Heard from the ringleader right after I read this: “We all three bought ketchup. It is simply delicious!”

    What I can’t get over about it is the complexity and balance of flavors. You said it best –“You could just eat it out of the jar.”

    I love to mix it with creme fraiche or mascarpone for dip for impromptu visitors.

    Thank you for always taking us in new and memorable direction.s

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