Woodman’s makes its own tartar sauce for our fresh seafood using three simple components: minced onion, dill relish, and a creamy “sauce” with a French name and Spanish origins. This preparation of olive oil, egg yolks, and vinegar was allegedly first concocted in the town of Mahón, Spain, in the 17th century, before being discovered by the French, who “corrected” it and (voilà!) called it mayonnaise. By the early 20th century, various brands of “mayo” were being commercially produced in the United States.
But in living memory, Woodman’s has used a brand produced by a company that got its start in 1914, the same year that Chubby and Bessie hung out their first sign. That’s when John E. Cain opened his cheese shop in Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace. Later, while expanding his food line, Cain formulated a mayonnaise recipe that “didn’t separate,” which he began to market as Cains All Natural Mayonnaise in 1924.
Used by Woodman’s to make its tartar sauce and coleslaw, John Cain’s gluten-and-preservative-free creation has a singular flavor that Woodman family members swear by, even when they’ve moved elsewhere. As when Donny Mac lived in Texas and his mom (“Auntie Nancy”) kept him supplied with caseloads of Cains Mayonnaise (sold only in New England and Upstate New York), because it reminded him of home.
Hard to imagine, but there’s a condiment that is even more sought-after than tartar sauce at Woodman’s, and its origins also stretch back to the 17th century. But this condiment’s antecedent was a Chinese sauce made from pickled fish and spices. Called ke-chiap, English traders brought it home to “Blighty” where, in typical English fashion, it was tinkered with. In fact, mushroom ketchup is still found on British grocery shelves.
But it was Yankee ingenuity that came up with tomato ketchup, with recipes appearing in American cookbooks in the early 1800s. While many still worried that raw, ripe tomatoes were poisonous, there were no such fears about tomato-based ketchup, which was thoroughly refined in the making. By the mid 19th century, tomato ketchup was being commercially produced and nationally distributed, using sodium benzoate as a preservative.
When sodium benzoate was declared unsafe in the early 20th century, Henry J. Heinz of Pittsburgh devised a new manufacturing process to produce ketchup as we now know it. By using choice ripe tomatoes and elevated amounts of sugar, salt, and vinegar, the new (more expensive) process negated the need for preservatives. Remarkably, as described by Malcom Gladwell in his New Yorker essay, “The Ketchup Conundrum,” the process also gave the new product a “sensorily complete” flavor, appealing to each of the human palate’s five main taste senses: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami (i.e., the taste for savories).
But long before Gladwell’s 2004 essay heralded its supremacy, Heinz Tomato Ketchup was Woodman’s brand. “People notice,” says Steve Woodman. “Despite its additional cost, it’s what our customers like.” The Woodmans have long enjoyed the Heinz brand at home as well. Although he won’t state outright that the culinary arts were not among his mother’s many gifts, Steve does recall growing up with a rather prosaic mealtime regimen, where the same dishes were served each week on the same day. “There would always be plenty of bottles of Heinz to go with our meals,” he says. “Everyone loved the ketchup.”
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