Ketchup doesn’t get a lot of respect. Somewhere in between ranch dressing and Miracle Whip, there’s that lowly condiment, liberally applied to french fries, scrambled eggs, hot dogs, burgers and whatever else sounds good. Those who hate it sniff at its lack of nutritional value and legacy of bad American cooking — and those who love it go through a whole bottle in a matter of weeks.
Abby Freethy, a Culinary Institute of America-trained chef and a Greenville Junction resident, was faced with a quandary regarding ketchup. While she was pregnant with her son, Dustin, she longed for the salty-sweet sauce — but she couldn’t abide the corn syrup and large amounts of sodium in most commercial brands.
“Ketchup was one of those weird pregnant foods that I just craved so badly,” said Freethy. “But I just don’t want to eat junky processed crap. I don’t want to eat high fructose corn syrup or preservatives. So I decided to make my own.”
Freethy, who is originally from Pennsylvania, is the owner and operator of Northwoods Gourmet Girl, based out of a building on the outskirts of downtown Greenville. What started as a means of feeding her ketchup fix has turned into a small empire of condiments — from her three ketchup flavors (country ketchup, charred onion and jalapeno) to an assortment of jams, relishes, pickles and sauces. She sells her products in stores all over Maine and online at northwoodsgourmetgirl.com.
For the past five years, she’s up at 4 a.m. most days of the week to set her huge pots on the stove in her cozy, rambling kitchen, and cook up a few gallons of whatever’s in need. It could be her savory, oniony hot dog relish or it could be her raspberry jam — which tastes as much like fresh raspberries as a jam possibly can. As long as it’s all done by noon, so she can have a spot of lunch with Dustin in her sunny, open dining room, the tranquil charm of which is disrupted only by her gregarious Newfoundland, Brynmarin — or by Dustin’s propensity for knock-knock jokes.
Her goal is to make her own versions of those everyday items that are mass-produced and shipped to grocery stores across the country, using high-quality, organic ingredients and no preservatives. She buys all her fruit from Maine growers, and she belongs to an organic co-op that supplies most of the rest of her ingredients.
“I have a vision for it. I have some very high ideals about food and the kinds of things I want to make and eat,” she said. “I don’t want to have to compromise on those things. I don’t want to make something full of salt or weird chemicals or genetically modified ingredients just because it’s cheaper or it’ll last longer.”
Before she was a ketchup queen, Freethy was living in Greenwich, Conn., working as an in-demand caterer and personal chef, organizing dinner parties for the wealthy elite of New York City. In the late 1990s, she also had worked as personal chef for families on Mt. Desert Island, where she got her first taste of Maine life. The year before she had Dustin, she packed up and moved to Greenville — partly to try a different pace and partly under the auspices of learning a new skill, iron working, from a friend who was a master of the trade.
“It’s kind of easy to love Maine. It’s so laid back and kind of wild, and it’s really beautiful,” said Freethy. “It’s not too expensive to make our stuff here, even though shipping costs are more. I could never afford a space like I have in a big city.”
While she started Northwoods Gourmet Girl during her pregnancy, Freethy didn’t really kick her business into high gear until 2006. She started selling her 13 products at stores around the state, including Hampden Natural Foods, Bangor Wine & Cheese Co., Pine Tree Market in Northeast Harbor, Whole Foods in Portland and at both Village Food Market and Indian Hill in Greenville.
Currently, she makes her three ketchups, her hot dog relish, jalapeno relish, strawberry, blueberry and raspberry jam and caramelized balsamic onions, all of which are available year-round. Her famous ketchups aren’t much like your typical Heinz or Hunts — they still have that vinegary tang, but with a deeper tomato flavor and a slight onion taste as well. She also makes four seasonal items each year, which for 2010 are apple butter, pear butter, blackberry jam and pickled fiddleheads. And she’s always trying new things; a tangy, curiously sweet strawberry balsamic elixir may be marketed in the coming months for use as a marinade, salad dressing or des-sert topping.
New for 2010 is Freethy’s meal service, which starts next week. Freethy will deliver gourmet dinners to Bangor-area residents starting Tuesday, March 30. A to-go menu will be posted at northwoodsgourmetgirl.com every week, and orders must be placed by noon the preceding Sunday for Tuesday delivery. Possible entrees in-clude Thai shrimp pizza, four cheese macaroni and cheese, pan-seared halibut salad and butternut squash ravioli in a garlic cream sauce.
“It’s eclectic American fare,” said Freethy. “It’s the stuff I like to cook. Pretty much everything I make is the stuff I like to cook. And, you know, I love to cook it.”