A bear and his sandwich

September 20, 2007

It was bad enough when the cow suggested to the dairymaid who suggested to the queen who suggested to the king that marmalade might be nicer than a little bit of butter for his bread - only to have the king insist on butter. But at least in A. A. Milne's heavily rhythmic poem, "The King's Breakfast," a child can be delighted by the short and emphatic rhymes, and perhaps excuse the king - who must be an eccentric character, anyway, or he wouldn't be king at all - for preferring butter, which is OK, to marmalade, which is infinitely better, because it's sweet and tangy and sort of bitter and sticky all at the same time.

But now marmalade is being subjected to the ultimate indignity. In England, there is a substance called Marmite, and the giant corporation that makes it (Unilever) has unveiled a television advertising campaign in which Paddington Bear discards his trusty marmalade sandwich and makes one with Squeezy Marmite instead. High-minded Englishmen and Englishwomen are up in arms over the spectacle of their beloved bear selling out to shill a product on TV - but seem to have missed the more essential point, which is that Marmite is an affront both to marmalade and to civilization.

Marmite is a vegetable spread that somehow involves yeast extract. It was invented 100 years ago and bears all the hallmarks of being an industrial byproduct. It's brown and lugubrious and even when you decide that 50 million Brits can't be wrong and it's worth a try - even at liberal, tolerant moments like that - you discover that it's unpalatable, innocuous in an unpleasant way, and vile.

It's so bad that even Australians won't eat it. (They do have something called Vegemite, which is beyond compare, and we don't, incidentally, mean that in a good way.)

But the English love Marmite. It's just one of those mysteries. One of the things they seem to love about it is that everyone else hates it. In fact, the Paddington Marmite ads play off this: Paddington, who by the way is originally from Darkest Peru, where we're quite sure Marmite has never penetrated, shares his sandwich with a pigeon, which starts gasping and retching. It's supposed to make the viewer feel discriminating. Us? Get us some marmalade; we're with the bird.

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