From Warren Hoge in the New York Times
Long Live Marmite!

Only the British Could Love It


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Ceremonial Britain marks 2002 as the jubilee of the 50 years since Queen Elizabeth II began her reign, but everyday Britain is commemorating the centennial of the country's coming under the rule of an even stranger British institution: Marmite.

Marmite is a brownish vegetable extract with a toxic odor, saline taste and an axle grease consistency that has somehow captivated the British.

They slather it on buttered toast, put it in gravies, mix it with cheddar cheese and beans and boil it into catarrh-chasing broths. They buy it at a 24 million-jar-per-year clip that has enshrined it as a national symbol right up there with the royal family and the Sunday roast.

That no foreigner has ever been known to like it simply adds to its domestic allure and its iconic status as an emblem of enduring British insularity and bloody-mindedness. Were Hogarth to paint a still life in a 21st century British pantry, a jar of Marmite would have to figure in it.

Marmite is exported to 30 countries, but all of it is aimed at expatriates, and there are no plans to try to acquaint the non-British world with its delights. "Our research shows that if you haven't been exposed to it by the time you're 3, it's unlikely you'll like it," said Mark Wearing, Marmite's plant manager in this Midlands brewery town where the product was first created 100 years ago in an abandoned malt house using spent yeast from the nearby Bass Pale Ale factory.

Marmite is genuinely good for you. Though the recipe itself is a secret, the ingredients include yeast and vegetable extracts, salt, niacin, spices, folic acid and vitamins B1, B2 and B12. It is used to wean infants, and it has been sent to troops in the Persian Gulf and Kosovo and dispatched with mountaineers and polar explorers because of its abundance of B vitamins and its capacity to ward off deficiency diseases like beriberi that once afflicted British troops and travelers.

Utilitarian it may be, but there are problems. Kiss someone who has just eaten Marmite, and you'll think you were licking paint.

Most Britons ate their first Marmite dressed in pajamas, cutting their freshly spread toast into strips called soldiers to be dipped into soft boiled eggs. The most common theory of its siren song appeal is that a mouthful decades into adulthood provides a headlong rush back to the comforts of the nursery.

Hayley Feureisen, the Welsh-born manager of Myers of Keswick, a grocery in Lower Mannattan that caters to expatriate Britons, said that Marmite was the product that her customers requested most. As for Americans, she said, "they think it tastes like a cross between cheese and shoe polish."

The store's English owner, Peter Myers, said, "In all honesty, I like Marmite on toast, especially with eggs, but I sometimes stand back and smell the Marmite, and I think to myself, `Boy, you'd have to be brought up on this stuff to form any appreciation for it in midlife.' "

The experiences of two North Americans long resident in Britain testify to a hands-across-the-sea experiment that never got a grip.

"In September 1961, I was on the deck of the Queen Mary one afternoon when they came around with Marmite sandwiches," recalled Ed Victor, an American who is a leading London literary agent. "I literally gagged on it, and I think I even threw it overboard."

Anthony King, professor of government at Essex University, had his first Marmite experience at Oxford a week after landing here from his native Canada in 1956. "I was invited to tea at one of the women's colleges and they served Marmite," he said. "I found it disgusting. I have never recovered from the shock."

Asked if the natives' addiction to Marmite wasn't proof that the British don't care what they put in their mouths, Nigella Lawson, an English food writer and broadcaster, protested: "Not at all. The British have always had a taste for the intense and the savory, and if it is not a refined palate, it is at least a strident one. People forget that a salt tooth is just as frequent as a sweet one."

Normal British reticence takes a holiday when the subject is Marmite, and Ms. Lawson launched into a conversation that began with a historical citation of Romans eating fermented anchovies and landed in modern times with her recipe for own children's party sandwiches: "I put butter in the mixer and cream it and mix it with Marmite and put it on bread with the crusts cut off."

Marmite may be snack food, but its consumers consider themselves connoisseurs, and you tamper with the formula at peril.

Two years ago, Mr. Wearing said, the company was flooded with complaints about Marmite bought from one supermarket chain. "What the hell are you doing with our Marmite?" one letter read, a hint of the offended sensibilities and feelings of possessiveness that disrespect to Marmite can rouse hereabouts.

Investigators discovered that the shelves had been stocked with a version of the product made in South Africa. "It was only slightly different, but they found us out," Mr. Wearing said.

The only changes the company has countenanced have been substituting the original earthenware with glass in the 1920's, abandoning metal lids for plastic ones in 1984 and refining the type face over the picture of the stewpot Ela marmite in French Ethat gives the product its name.

Being British, the company has had an appreciation of the ironic possibilities of the public's divided loyalties between those who find Marmite revolting and those who think it sublime.

One campaign, a television ad exploiting the product's notoriety for producing bad breath, showed a woman excusing herself from a sofa clutch with her boyfriend and running into the kitchen to have a quick bite of Marmite. She returns, they kiss, and the final scene shows the woman alone while the man is heard throwing up in the toilet.

 Thanks Frances Allwright

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