The Origins of the World’s Most Divisive Condiment
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because breakfast is on the tongue of the taster.
It’s the kind of condiment that can divide families and turn enthusiasts into unrepentant social outcasts, the sort who will happily pack 500-gram jars of it into their hand luggage on the off chance their country of destination doesn’t stock the stuff. After earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2011 forced the temporary closure of the Marmite factory there, an entire nation had to confront what many called “Marmageddon,” only half jokingly.
Marmite is a British curiosity made from yeast extract, a by-product of beer brewing. To those who love the sticky, salty black goo, it is a national treasure, “the breakfast spread from Heaven” as my Marmite-loving British colleague James Watkins puts it, a food staple that’s good for spreading on toast, crumpets and sandwiches or adding to stews and casseroles. To those who hate what American writer and Anglophile Bill Bryson once called “an edible yeast extract with the visual properties of an industrial lubricant,” it’s variously maligned as everything from “tar in a jar” to “perhaps the foulest compound legally sold for human consumption.” For some, tasting it leaves no words, just a face resembling a real-life human emoji of disgust (full disclosure: My wife and daughter love it, and I love them despite it).
Love it or hate it, Marmite has a remarkable history.
As for those on the fence about the taste? Well, there’s not really a fence. “I have, to date,” says Watkins, “only met one person who has claimed to be ambivalent about the taste of Marmite, and I don’t believe them.”
Love it or hate it, however, Marmite has a remarkable history, one that has produced one of the most resilient brands and loyal fan bases in the world. The story really begins in the late 19th century with the French microbiologist Louis Pasteur, who, somehow unhappy with the karmic benefits of making milk safer to drink, decided he might inflict a new scourge on humanity by exploring the nutritional properties of brewer’s yeast. And then it was a German chemist, Justus von Liebig, who figured out how to boil and concentrate the yeast to make it edible … arguably.
In 1902, the Marmite Food Company was founded in Burton upon Trent, England, a town in Staffordshire rich in breweries. The product’s name, however, likely comes from the French word (pronounced marmeet) for a cooking pot (similar to what’s pictured on the label) and explains why, since the 1920s, the spread has been sold in pot-shaped jars. It was a tough sell early on, but the 100 percent vegetarian ingredients, based on an original recipe containing salt, spices and celery, had a core of die-hard fans from the start. “At the outset it wasn’t that popular, but it was launched on a rising awareness of vegetarian interest,” says Robert Opie, a packaging and branding expert and director of London’s Museum of Brands. “This ‘cult’ was both serious and loyal and thus was a solid foundation on which to grow the brand.”
Rich in B vitamins, Marmite would soon grow popular in schools and hospitals and was included in British soldiers’ rations during both world wars (as if the horrors of battle were not enough). As a brand, Marmite has stood the test of time as few consumer foodstuffs, retaining the same name, label and packaging for close to a century now. In 1984, when the company switched to plastic-lidded jars, some users, says Opie (a major Marmite enthusiast himself), “replaced the new plastic lid with the old tin one to maintain the traditional ‘feel,’ [because] if there is one thing we don’t like, it is change.”
What has changed over time, however, is the message of Marmite’s various advertising campaigns. Through the years, Marmite has been pitched as a remedy for every affliction from malaria to baldness — and many users still swear that it repels mosquitoes. After early slogans like “Good for You” and “Definitely Does You Good,” which emphasized its healthful properties, the brand shifted in the 1980s to the famous “My Mate Marmite” campaign; television commercials included such scenes as a man bathing in the black substance.
Marmite’s current slogan has the distinction of being among the most honest in advertising: “You either love it or hate it.” In one commercial, a beautiful blond invites her date back to her apartment for coffee only to see him convulse in disgust when they start kissing on her couch. The culprit? The Marmite-covered toast the woman secretly nibbled while preparing the coffee. The “love it or hate it” slogan, like Marmite itself, says Opie, has become part of British culture and language. How might one, for example, describe a circumstance where there is seemingly no middle ground regarding one’s feelings toward a person, thing or issue? A “Marmite situation,” of course.