Alcott · Little Women

Cookbook Outtakes: Mrs. Kirke’s Mushroom Catsup

Boardinghouse Dinner

When Jo sets off on her New York jaunt, she’s fortunate in her employer; Mrs. Kirke is a kindly boarding house owner who apparently keeps a good table (as evidenced by the fact that she takes her meals in the main dining area. Shady ladies would give their tenants crappy food and eat in their own rooms.) Beef was a constant on boarding house menus, and mushroom catsup would have been a common accompaniment.

Author: Alcott, Louisa May
Book: Little Women
Difficulty rating: Harry Potter
Deliciousness rating: Acceptable

Based on Directions for Cookery In Its Various Branches
Makes 1.5 cups of catsup

Victorians made a lot of condiments, including a ton of catsups. Not just the tomato we included in the book, but apple, cucumber, currant, oyster, walnut …. From what we can tell from perusing Victorian cookbooks, mushroom was a really common one. It tastes kinda like soy or Worcestershire, but with a hint of that mushroomy dirt flavor? (I know,  I make it sound sooo appealing.) It would work well to give stews and meats more depth.

Make your life easier and get the pre-washed mushrooms. If you don’t, make sure to wipe them clean — don’t wash them, because it’ll dilute your sauce. You can’t make a smaller quantity of this recipe because there needs to be enough to boil.


  • 2 lb of fresh cremini mushrooms, chopped
  • 6 tsp salt, divided
  • 1 tbsp whole black peppercorns
  • 1 small chunk ginger, about the size of a ½ teaspoon
  • 1 small pinch allspice
  • 1 small pinch cloves
  • 1 small pinch mace


  1. In a deep non-reactive bowl, alternate 6 layers of mushrooms with 1 tsp of salt (starting with a mushroom layer first).
  2. Cover and let it sit 12 hours in a cool place. Mix with a wooden spatula, cover, and let it sit another 12 hours.
  3. Put all the mushrooms and the liquor in a medium pot, and add 1 tsbp whole black peppercorns. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, and once it starts bubbling at the edges, turn the heat to low. Cover and simmer gently for 30 minutes.
  4. Strain (don’t squeeze the mushrooms). Add the allspice, ginger, cloves, and mace.
  5. Simmer 15 minutes at lowest setting, covered.
  6. Let it cool, then bottle. Use within a week.



Take mushrooms that have been freshly gathered, and examine them carefully to ascertain that they are of the right sort. Pick them nicely, and wipe them clean, but do not wash them. Spread a layer of them at the bottom of a deep earthen pan, and then sprinkle them well with salt; then another layer of mushrooms, and another layer of salt, and so on alternately. Throw a folded cloth over the jar, and set it by the fire or in a very cool oven. Let it remain thus for twenty-four hours, and then mash them well with your hands. Next squeeze and strain them through a bag.

To every quart of strained liquor add an ounce and a half of whole black pepper, and boil it slowly in a covered vessel for half an hour. Then add a quarter of an ounce of allspice, half an ounce of sliced ginger, a few cloves, and three or four blades of mace. Boil it with the spice fifteen minutes longer. When it is done, take it off, and let it stand awhile to settle. Pour it carefully off from the sediment and put it into small bottles, filling them to the top. Secure them well with corks dipped in melted rosin, and leather caps tied over them.

The longer catchup is boiled, the better it will keep. You may add cayenne and nutmeg to the spices.

The bottles should be quite small, as it soon spoils after being opened.

Alcott, Louisa. Little Women. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1896.

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