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The Most In-Famous Food Ever

“Ah, Dusty! Infamous is when you’re more than famous! This guy El Guapo is not just famous, he’s IN-famous!”  Ned Nederlander

On the last leg of our honeymoon, we planned a visit some of my wife’s family members that live in England. Her mother, a former subject of the Queen, has siblings, cousins, etc. that still live there.  Anxiety was getting the best of me. As a cold sweat developed from the gate all the way to baggage claim I kept thinking to myself “mind your Ps and Qs”, and the ever-popular “you only get one first impression”, but a pair of hands belonging to my wife Kat started massaging my shoulders, while her voice whispered in my ear “don’t be nervous, you got this.” Upon exiting the baggage claim area of the Gatwick airport, we were greeted by a middle-aged couple. This couple was my wife’s aunt Sue and her boyfriend Dave.

Expecting a stiff and proper English couple, those expectations went out the window. From Aunt Sue’s mouth I heard a happy squeal “Kit Kat!!” it was so loud that I think most dogs within the London metro area heard it. After a bear hug from Aunt Sue welcoming me to the family, Dave came by next, shook my hand and without wasting any breath invited me to the pub “for a pint or ten”, sadly, this never came to fruition.  After our hellos, we got into the car, and headed straight to their house. When we got to their house, the rest of the clan was there waiting for us to celebrate our wedding. Cousin Duncan and Alice, and some other friends that my wife knew, were all packed in this house.  Drinks, food, and laughter were shared by all who were in attendance.

Piled in the van.
Aunt Sue’s place, 6 years ago

The next morning, while at breakfast, I see cousin Duncan making himself some toast. He grabbed the bread and the butter, however, this would not be such a big deal until his next move. From the cupboard he pulls out a short, brown jar with a yellow top and the word “Marmite” emblazoned on it. Duncan begins to spread this orange-brown colored substance with the consistency of marmalade. Out of curiosity I asked, “what’s that?” to which he replied “Marmite, wanna try?”

The famous (or infamous) Marmite, depending on who you ask, is a staple of the British and some European families’ diet. Its fame would be comparable to that of peanut butter in America. It is a product that you either love or hate; there is no other emotion attached to it. Marmite was invented, perhaps discovered, in the late 19th century by German Chemist Baron Justus von Liebig. Baron Justus made significant contributions to the analysis of organic compounds, the organization of laboratory-based chemistry education, and the application of biochemistry and agriculture.  Accredited also with the development of the bouillon cube, he discovered that the yeast that was left over from brewing beer, could be converted into a high-protein dietary supplement.

To prepare the yeast that is left over from brewing beer into a comestible product, salt is added. Salt starts the chemical decomposition of the yeast molecule, hence the overpowering salty taste that marmite has.  The process/recipe of making Marmite is both secret and a mystery, however, the main ingredients of Marmite manufactured in the UK are glutamic acid-rich yeast extract, salt, vegetable extract, spice extracts and celery extracts, however the precise measurement of all the ingredients is a trade secret.

The Gilmour family of Trenton, England, have been credited to be the first to produce yeast extract as a commercial product in 1902, using yeast from local breweries. They sold the product in earthenware pots and named it for a pot-bellied French cooking pot called “la marmite.” In 1912, vitamins were introduced into the mix, more specifically, vitamin B complex (B12 as it is more commonly known). Adding vitamins to the mix made Marmite an indispensable item to combat vitamin B1 deficiency common in the early part of the 20th century. This deficiency affected mostly people of limited resources whose diet consisted mainly of rice, corn and other grains. It became part of a British soldier’s ration pack during World War I, and in the 1930’s it was also used to treat anemia as well as malnutrition during a malaria epidemic in Sri Lanka.

English Troops in the trenches.
Jonathan Reeves/BNPS

The faces of anticipation of my new family while I was getting ready to bite into a Marmite topped toast could have been the inspiration to a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover. Once I bit down, chewed, and swallowed, my next words shocked at least two thirds of the room: “not bad.” Gasps, shudders, and high fives being exchanged could be heard in the tiny English kitchen. The reputation of this stuff varies from person to person. While some adore it and even use it in recipes, such as vegetarian chili, others would rather throw it inside of a volcano or send it back to the seventh layer of hell where some of my new family members say that it comes from. Upon observation is was the younger generations that liked it the most, excluding my wife Kat, the older members like aunt Sue would just give us a look, in which you could hear her mind saying, “how do you like that stuff?” while grasping her morning tea and reading the paper.

Marmite’s reach is not limited to just the UK and Europe; New Zealand and Australia is part of this group due to their close ties with England. Australia’s version is said to be different. Known as Vegemite instead of Marmite in Australia, the two products are the same by look, feel, and smell. The one difference that can be observed is that Vegemite, unlike its English cousin Marmite, seems to have less salt content and a better flavor profile because of the extra vegetable stock and sugar. The jury is still out in America. Although available in the international food isle of grocery stores like Publix and other specialty shops, some do not know what this brown goop is and do not dare on trying it just on appearances and its briny smell. The few that have experienced it are divided as well within the same groups, those who hate it or love it.

In the late 1990’s Unilever, the company that currently owns Marmite, launched a marketing campaign based on this notion. Coining of the phrase “Marmite effect” or “Marmite reaction”, this turn of phrase was developed when someone had a strong feeling towards something.

In recent history, Marmite is touted as a delicacy; used in recipes by chefs, but more specifically by vegan or vegetarian cooks. They love to use it as a way to add a deep, rich savory quality to recipes without changing their flavor profile. The most common and preferred way to enjoy Marmite is on toast. Marmite is an acquired taste to those of you out there who are interested, while some grow up loving it, some chagrin and even revolt in disgust by just by merely looking at jar. So, for those of you adventurous enough, enjoy the “Marmite effect”, choose a side; love it or hate it.

References:

http://www.seriouseats.com/2014/01/pantry-essentials-all-about-yeast-extract-marmite-vegemite.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marmite

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Justus-Freiherr-von-Liebig

https://www.thekitchn.com/what-is-marmite-and-why-is-it-so-good-240563

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