Lucky Number 57

In Creative Nonfiction by Kimberly Horg

Lucky Number 57
Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

Nowadays, it might be hard to imagine food tasting so terrible that you must cover the taste to eat it. Sad but true. Many people lived with dirty water and tainted food in the 1800s. It was a leading cause of death. Much of society drank alcohol daily because they had no other choice; clean drinking water was not an option, and soda and sparkling water were yet to be invented. Riddled with pollutants, the water caused disease and death. Refrigerators were not invented but some of the lucky ones had ice boxes. Products like milk spoiled so fast in the heat that unhealthy additives were added to make it look white.

Meat was often rotten when it was sold at the outdoor markets to the consumers. There were no grocery stores or FDA regulations, and not everyone could refrigerate meat, so it would spoil quickly. Needless to say, (I am going to say it anyway), on top of the appearance, the bad smell and taste of the food being sold gave many people chronic stomach issues.

***

Henry John Heinz was one of eight children, born to parents who emigrated from Kallstadt, Germany, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 1850, Heinz turned six, and it was at this time that he began helping his mother with her garden. He loved to work in the garden and prepare food from the vegetables that they grew. His mother made sauces from the vegetables and had a recipe for horseradish sauce that he was particularly fond of. A couple of years later, he started selling food to his neighbors. He walked around his neighborhood with a basket filled with goodies, and oddly enough, he always gathered 57 different vegetables to put in his basket. At least that is how I imagine it. A year later in 1853, he ground his own 57 ingredients from his family’s garden and made horseradish sauce from his mother's recipe.

“Come and get it,” he yelled down the streets. “Spice up your dinner with my  horseradish sauce.”

“Hey, young man,” a customer said. “I’ll get two.”

“Thank you, sir. I bet you’ll be back for more.”

Many customers came back for more. Demand was so high that when Heinz turned twelve, he started using a horse and cart to deliver his food. When he was sixteen, he branched out and began making three weekly deliveries to Pittsburgh.

“I am going to Pittsburgh to branch out and spread the word.”

“I am so proud of you, John,” his mother probably said.

“I couldn’t have done it without you, Mom.”

“I never knew what I was creating when I came up with horseradish.”

“A genius recipe! I mean it, you came up with a masterpiece!”

Heinz could not stand the bad taste of food that was available to him, so he began making sauces to cover the taste. Heinz liked good-tasting food; he was a foodie before that was even a thing.  He was also a man who had ambition, two qualities that drove him to form a company with his friend when he turned twenty-five. Unsurprisingly, the first product that he sold was horseradish in Sharpsburg, Pennsylvania. According to the Heinz website, it started out as Anchor Pickle and Vinegar Works, and later it became Heinz & Noble.

Unfortunately, a few years later (after the Panic of 1873), his first company went bankrupt, but that did not stop him. Shortly thereafter, in 1876, he formed a new business and called it the F&J Heinz Company. Heinz re-established the company, but this time he did it with financial assistance from his brother John and his cousin Frederick.

It was then that Heinz created a sauce like no other, a sauce so universal, so marvelous that it could go on virtually anything.

“I am going to call it catsup,” he said.

“Why?”

“Why not?”

“There is an Asian sauce with that name,” a friend said.

“Well, maybe, I will call it ketchup instead.”

When he began selling ketchup, his life began to change. After ketchup, he made apple butter, pepper sauce, and mincemeat, as well as other preserves. Heinz, the son of immigrant parents, built an empire out of nothing. He had nothing more than an imagination, a yearning for better and 57 imaginary ingredients.

***

“What is for dinner tonight?”

“Meatloaf.”

“Oh no, it tasted so bad the last time you made it that I could barely swallow the meat,” a husband most likely said to his wife in the late 1800s.

“It had a green tint and smelled so bad,” their child said.

“This time it will taste better,” she said.

“I doubt it. I saw it on the counter. It looks green again,” another child said.

“There is nothing I can do about that. That is the way they sell it at the market, but this time I have a secret ingredient.”

“What secret ingredient?”

“I have a special sauce that tastes so good that it makes cardboard yummy.”

“Let’s eat cardboard and ketchup then.”

The truth is that during the 1800s many people became extremely ill from the food that they were ingesting. Ketchup or catsup, however you want to say it, was a lifesaver. It allowed people to have an appetite again and swallow their food without gagging.

“This isn’t bad.”

“This is actually good!”

“I want to put ketchup on everything.”

Some people did put ketchup on everything and still do today. Heinz sells more than 650 million bottles of ketchup every year. This does not include Heinz baked beans and tomato sauce, which F.Y.I  is said to require 2 million tons of tomatoes. It is hard for me to imagine what 2 million tons of tomatoes look like.

***

In 1888, Henry bought out his family members and became known as the H.J. Heinz Company, launching a factory in Allegheny City, Iowa. Production continued to explode in the 1890s with new factories and branches popping up in New York and Michigan.

In 1896, Heinz added 57 to the bottle so it could become a slogan/symbol of the company. Heinz's "57 varieties" became so popular that it was even on New York City's first electric billboard in New York City in 1900.

“Did you see that on the billboard?”

“What?”

“Heinz 57.”

“I heard that it’s some sort of sauce.”

“I hear it is good and it has 57 varieties!”

“We should try it.”

Although he was selling more than 60 products at the time, Heinz thought “57” sounded lucky. Thereafter, the Heinz ketchup famous slogan, "57 varieties," was stamped on its bottles. The magical number is like a work of fiction: a true story that had the truth stretched into a believable reality.

“I have an idea,” he said to the production manager.

“I think we should add the number 57 to the bottle,” he said.

"But sir, we have over 60 ingredients,” the manager said.

“I don’t care, I like the number 57 and so does my wife,” he said.

Some say that the number was inspired by an advertisement that he saw when he was riding a train in New York City.

“Look at that,” he said to his wife.

“What, dear?”

“A shoe store boasting ‘21 styles.’”

“Isn’t that something,” she said.

“I want that,” he said.

“You have plenty of shoestrings,” she said.

“I need a catchy phrase like that,” he said.

“How many ingredients are in your ketchup?” she asked.

“I don’t know exactly. I would have to check. I know it is over 60.”

“Well, what is your favorite number?”

“People always say seven is a lucky number,” Heinz said.

“I like that number too, but you have way over seven ingredients,” she said.

“Fifty-seven is close to 60 and it has the number seven in it,” he said.

“I like it. It has a ring to it.”

“Yes, 57 does sound good, and it has a psychological influence and an  

enduring significance to people of all ages.”

“Fifty-seven Heinz.”

“No, Heinz 57.”

“Yes, that has a ring to it, Heinz 57.”

Heinz picked the number at random because he liked the sound of it, and it worked because others liked the sound of it too.

People would ask questions like:

“Does it have 57 ingredients?”

“I heard it is called that because he is 57,” another customer said.

“You are both wrong. I heard he has 57 girlfriends all over the world.”

One version of the slogan's origin reported by CNN referenced Heinz's personal secretary who said that he thought "57" sounded better than alternative numbers. CNN also reported that even Kraft Heinz (the company that makes the ketchup today) admits that the number is fake and that Heinz found the number 57 "mystical, magical, and memorable." The Heinz brand director, Ashleigh Gibson, told CNN that five was Heinz's lucky number whereas seven was his wife's lucky number. Today, the "57 varieties" slogan appears on many Heinz products from beans to mustard, and for no apparent reason other than it is a branding symbol.

***

When the tomato sauce first hit the scene, it was called catsup. Eventually, the sauce became ketchup, and by 1905, Heinz had incorporated his invention. He opened factories overseas in England and Spain. Heinz believed in cleanliness and wanted his companies kept clean.

“I saw rat droppings the other day.”

“That’s the name of the game, boss.”

“Not this game!”

“What should we do?”

“Clean this mess!”

In 1906, Heinz was only one of the few companies who supported the Pure Food and Drug Act. Later known as the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), it set the standard for maintaining cleanliness in factories. For years people talked about the unsanitary conditions. Muckrakers reported on the dirty conditions in manufacturing plants, but it wasn’t until the publication of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle that Congress moved on legislation that would prevent “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of adulterated or misbranded or poisonous or deleterious foods, drugs or medicines, and liquors.”

In 1912, the Heinz Company began to use the term “quality control.” An employee and bacteriologist named Herbert Riley coined the term.

“Come on people! Look at the quality of our products,” Riley said.

“The quality? What do you mean by that, Herbert?”

“What I mean is…we can’t sell our catsup with rat shit on the outside of the bottles!”

“We can’t keep the rats out of here. We need more cats around here.”

“I will tell the boss to buy some cats, but in the meantime, I want quality control! I want every bottled washed before it is packaged for shipment to ensure that it is clean and sanitary.”

“Ya, rat shit is not very appetizing,” someone said as a joke.

“This is not a laughing matter, people. Our reputation is at stake here.”

Heinz prioritized cleanliness in the workplace. The bottles were not only washed thoroughly but the shape changed too, and the shape kept changing throughout the years until the head of the company decided on a clear bottle.

“It has to be clear so people can see the color.”

“It does have an appetizing color.”

“The green bottles don’t show off its inviting color.

“We need to buy all the clear bottles that we can get our hands on,” Heinz said.

“We need to add something to the ketchup, so the color remains consistent.”

“It is part of the recipe of the magic of 57.”

“Oh yes, of course.”

“We have to make sure it always tastes like Heinz 57.”

***

Heinz invented many products including relish. According to the article, “So THAT’'S where the 57 came from” was published by Delish.com:

“One of the company's first big marketing stunts involved setting up a massive pickle billboard near the Flatiron building in New York City. And at the 1893 Chicago World Fair, Heinz handed out free samples and pickle pins to get people to visit the booth.”

The article further reported that more than a million people left with the pins. The pickles were thought to be a marketing scheme for one of Heinz's earliest products: relish.

“What are these?”

“Pickle pins.”

“I don’t get it.”

“What don’t you get?”

“Why pickles?”

“There are pickles in the relish.”

“I don’t think people will get it.”

“The pickle pins will make them curious and want to try the relish.”

“Maybe.”

“You’ll see,” I imagine John saying.

Kraft Heinz now sells more than 5,700 products in 200 countries. It produces thousands of products across more than 80 percent of the world's countries. Ketchup, mustard, and mayo remain standards in the U.S. Instead of developing new products, many of Kraft Heinz's innovations have been variations on its century-old standbys, such as a bottled mix of ketchup and mayo it sells as "mayochup." Fun Fact: Before Mayochup came to the States, it was available in Dubai. I don’t know when Sriracha Mayo, my all-time favorite, came from and when it was invented, but I am just happy for its invention. It’s pure genius, and it is my favorite condiment that I can put on most things I eat. Ketchup I reserve for French fries and burgers, but Sriracha Mayo is a creation from the Gods.

The Delish.com article said that in 1999 NASA approved Heinz Tomato Ketchup for use onboard the International Space Station. I think Heinz would have been thrilled because every item must be tested by food scientists, dietitians, and engineers before being approved, including by astronauts. That right there is the ultimate quality control.

***

After the bankruptcy, Heinz rebuilt a company that would eventually gross over 11 billion in sales per year. The company’s main products include ketchup, condiments and sauces, frozen food, soups, beans and pasta meals, infant nutrition, and other food products. Its leading brands are its namesake ketchup, Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce, Classico Pasta Sauce, Ore-Ida Potatoes, the Boston Market brand, T.G.I. Friday’s, and Weight Watchers frozen foods. A couple of years ago Heinz turned 150.

In 1876, the sauce was invented through the mind of a foodie whose pure genius plan came before the invention of the light bulb. His plan to make food better worked. Personally, I can’t imagine a world without condiments. I love sauces so much that I put them on everything from sandwiches to vegetables to steak. I don’t think I am alone in my love affair with condiments.

In the past couple of years, Heinz became a necessity for many. According to the Wall Street Journal, Kraft Heinz had a boost in sales from the pandemic because many people have eaten more meals at home instead of going out to restaurants. Additionally, there was a shortage of Heinz's ketchup when restaurants tried to get enough packets to fill takeout and delivery orders.

I imagine a conversation after getting takeout:

“Where is the ketchup?”

“I am sure it is in the bag,”

“It’s not.”

“I can’t believe they didn’t put ketchup in the bag when we ordered fries.”

“Fries without ketchup is wrong.”

“They gave us mustard.”

“Yuck, who puts mustard on fries or anything but hot dogs?”

“Some people like mustard.”

“Weirdos.”

“Mustard is low in calories.”

“It is disgusting.”

“Ketchup is the most important condiment, far superior to mustard.

“No comparison.”

“Whoever invented it was a genius.”

“I thought Heinz invented it, did he?”

“I thought French did.”

“Who’s French?”

***

About the Author

Kimberly Horg

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I received my Master of Fine Arts from California State University, Fresno in 2019. During the three years in the M.F.A. program, I earned an emphasis in Publishing and Editing by working for earned credits as the online nonfiction editor at university’s literary magazine, The Normal School. I received my Bachelor of Arts in Journalism with a concentration in News/Editorial in 2001. Since then, I have had hundreds of articles published both regionally and nationally on a wide variety of topics. In 2020, I was awarded the Investigative Reporters & Editors Diversity Fellowship. Five of my essays were published in literary magazines recently including Dove Tales, Writing for Peace Literary Magazine, Abstract Elephant Magazine, Iris Literary Journal, East by Northeast Literary Magazine and Sterling Clack Clack Magazine.