Josna Rege

Posts Tagged ‘Marmite’

401. More Than Enough

In Britain, Childhood, Family, Nature, places, Stories on July 24, 2017 at 2:23 am

Hampstead No. 1 Pond (photo: J. Rege)

I ought to have known as soon as the ATM at the Hampstead branch of Barclays Bank swallowed up my debit card on the morning of my return flight; when the taxi driver who drove me to St. Pancras to catch the train to Gatwick took me to the wrong station; when the airline found my painstakingly-packed suitcase 5 kg. overweight; when the price of an overflow carry-on bag rivaled the excess baggage charges; when, after my rush to the airport, the plane was delayed by nearly an hour; and when, to add the ultimate insult to injury, I was told that my two precious jars of Marmite would now have to be confiscated because I had transferred them from the overweight suitcase into my carry-on bag. As I fought back the tears of fury, frustration, and self-pity that sprang to my eyes, I told myself that I ought to have known the universe would conspire to make my last day in England a disaster.

But all along the way, felicity had trumped misfortune. The Hampstead walk that last morning was an experience that no bank or ATM could possibly take away from me; the guide who led me astray was set straight by another one who knew the way; at the airport, those who would exploit hapless travelers were rendered powerless by an open-hearted stranger; the delay was rendered delightful by tea and an M&S custard tart, sprinkled liberally with nutmeg; and even the loss of the Marmite, tragic to be sure, was not total: while two were confiscated, a third made it through, with a lot more besides.

It was a compressed trip, as highly charged as it was fleeting. In just over a week I had travelled up to the West Midlands to see my dear Uncle Ted, back down to London to see regal Auntie Bette, the matriarch of the clan, and Auntie Angy, who had not let marriage into the Sharp family (Sharp by name and sharp by nature) rob her of her sweet disposition. Time had not permitted me to travel up to Norfolk to see my cousin Susan and her brood (including a new grandbaby), or to Bristol to see my old friend Cylla (who had become a double grandmother since my last visit), or to Hoddesdon to see Barbara, or to visit Robin, who had become a widower since the last time and Savita, my old schoolmate from India, who were based in London itself; and I had missed two cousins altogether. But, to quote my sister’s favorite Rolling Stones song, “You get what you need.” I had got plenty.

When they told me, at the airport check-in, that I could either incur 45 pounds in excess-baggage charges or, at the conveniently adjacent luggage store, that the smallest bag I could contemplate buying would coincidentally also cost me 45 pounds, I almost gave way to despair; but this Kafkaesque double-bind was to give way to a singular sweetness. At the airport outpost of Boots the chemists, where I attempted to buy their largest plastic carrier bag, the young cashier asked me if I would prefer a cloth bag. “Yes,” I breathed, “yes please. Do you sell them?”

No, they didn’t, but if I could wait a few moments, she had one that she could give me.
“Don’t look so surprised,” she said, as I stood open-mouthed at her generosity, “it’s nothing.” And sure enough, the sweet young angel stepped out and returned with a bag whose capacity rivaled the £45 offering at the price-gouging luggage shop. I was overcome by gratitude, but my heartfelt thanks only embarrassed her, so I left to find a set of scales where I could off-load some of the heaviest items in my suitcase (including, sadly, the large and ill-fated jars of Marmite).

Earlier that day, the sinking feeling in my stomach when the Barclay’s ATM on Hampstead High Street swallowed my debit card threatened to plunge me into the Slough of Despond, as I wrangled in vain with the bank clerk, all the while watching my last free hour in London ticking away. But as I continued my walk down Hampstead High Street, the feeling of well-being returned from my walk across the Heath earlier that morning. I walked past the Oxfam shop at the top of Gayton Road,  where Andrew, Nikhil, and I had lived for six weeks in 1997, while I was participating in an NEH Summer Seminar on postcolonial literature and theory, and where I now picked up a pair of bone china mugs and paid 5p for a recycled-plastic carrier bag that bore the heartwarming slogan, “Be Humankind.” Hurrying down Downshire Hill, into Keats Grove, past the poet’s house and gardens, I reached the 24 bus terminus at South End Green at last, in good time.

Well Passage, Hampstead

All that morning a feeling of homecoming had accompanied me every step of the way, as I strode confidently and alone down Mansfield Road, where my cousin Lesley had once lived, and up the steps to the Heath, where morning dogs and dog-walkers mingled and meandered at their leisure. This was where my mother and her brothers had rambled in their youth, where my parents met and courted, and where I had been born. There was a moment, walking down the narrow Well Passage, when I might have been my mother in a sepia photo c. 1952, in which she walks, swinging her arms, with her brother Ted and his best friend Curly, in a circular gypsy skirt with a wide cinched-waist belt and a dimpled smile on her face as if the world was new and she and her mates owned it. No bank nonsense could dislodge that feeling.


On the long summer evening before, Cousin Lesley and I had taken the 24 bus to South End Green, walked onto the Heath from South End Green, and stood overlooking the pond and the row of houses beyond. It was in one of those houses, in South Hill Park, where we had stayed for three months in 1963 with Auntie Dorrie and Tamara on our way back from Greece to India, where I had walked to nearby Gospel Oak School every morning with Lesley, where I first saw the Beatles on television, where I first saw television itself (see British TV, Fall of ’63). As we watched children watching the ducks and the swan and its half-grown cygnet, Lesley asked their mother to take our picture. We walked on, to the bathing ponds where Mum and her brothers and their friends had passed many long, happy hours in their teens and twenties. I passed and photographed a fallen horse chestnut branch, with the not-yet-ripe fruit still in its prickly skin. Come September, children would prise the glossy nuts out of their burst casings and play conkers, if children still played conkers today. But now was now. I was here, and on my last day in England, it was more than enough; it was plenty.

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41. Eating for Four

In Britain, Food, Stories on April 30, 2010 at 12:38 pm

I lived on my own for the first time over a period of nearly five months when I was nineteen and studying in London. It was also the first time I had cooked for myself alone, and so I naturally cooked for four, as I had seen my mother doing all my life. The trouble was, it didn’t occur to me that I could keep the leftovers for another meal, so I simply ate seconds, and thirds, and fourths, until all the food was finished. My father had a horror of our leaving anything on our plates, and he had trained me well. During those few short months I gained more than a stone—sixteen pounds over my regular weight of 100 pounds.

Before I left for London, Mum had written down some essential recipes for me: chicken, prawn (shrimp), potato, and cauliflower curry. I still have them somewhere, on a tattered sheet of lined paper, streaked and stained with grease and spices, singed from the time it caught fire on the gas burner. These recipes became my standbys, and soon I was moderately famous for my prawn curry. Whenever I returned to England my cousin Sue would invite friends over with the promise that her cousin Jo was going to make a better Indian meal than they could get at any restaurant. So I had a reputation to uphold. As a college student I hadn’t yet had much cooking experience, but I could make a good late-night snack of spicy curried potatoes and piping-hot poories, or thin English pancakes—crepes—filled with curried potatoes and peas, rather like a dosa. (The high carbohydrate content is no doubt evident to the contemporary reader, but in the seventies we had not developed any such sensitivities.)

Before I found my own flat in London I stayed with Auntie Bette and Uncle Bill for a month. That laid the foundation for what was to follow after. I soon settled comfortably—much too comfortably—into their seductive English lifestyle: tea and biscuits in the morning, three square meals a day—followed by pudding, of course—and tea, biscuits, and sweeties while watching telly in the evening. Then, just around the News at Ten and before bedtime, Uncle Bill would say that he felt a bit peckish, and he or Auntie Bette would make a thick cheese-and-piccalilli sandwich, which went down well with another round of tea.

But the pounds really started to accumulate once I was living alone. How on earth did I gain so much in such a short time?

The first cause, no doubt, was Digestive Biscuits. I would buy a large packet of them, sit down with a book and a pot of tea, and go through them all one by one, dipping each one absent-mindedly into my tea as I read (and, as often as not, leaving it in just a second too long and having to retrieve it soggily out of the cup with a teaspoon).  There is nothing like a good book accompanied by a nice cup of tea and a Digestive—or ten.

Bread was the second culprit. The hot, squashy brown loaves that one could buy  at the baker’s on the Camden High Street were to die for. No sooner had I got them home than I would cut a hefty slice, spread it liberally with butter and sparingly with Marmite (as they warned on the label), and sometimes, top it off with a few slices of cucumber, tomato, or radish. I loved that bread and worked my way through my daily loaf at an impressive pace. (I’ll never forget the time I went to cut into a new loaf only to find that Rosie, my landlady’s two-year old, had got there first, burrowing in from one end and hollowing it out completely!)

Paean to Marmite! Although I liked marmalade well enough, nothing sweet could ever replace the taste of well-being produced by a thick slice of buttered bread-and-Marmite.

In America, Marmite is universally misunderstood and Marmite-lovers mocked. Americans love sweet foods, and for them, the color of Marmite suggests only chocolate spread. What a rude shock it was for Andrew when, anticipating chocolate spread, he spread a generous dollop of Marmite onto his bread and took a large bite. He isn’t generally a man who holds a grudge, but I don’t think he’s ever quite gotten over it. Axle grease is his name for it, and most of our friends agree with him.

While I’m waxing poetic over Marmite, I can’t resist posting this letter, published a few years ago in The New York Times Magazine, which demonstrates the degree to which this substance is maligned in America and the depth of feeling it stirs up among believers:

“I am distressed by the blatant anti-Marmitism displayed by, of all things, an Englishman, referring to Marmite as “the odious brown sauce made out of vegetable extract.” This stuff is nectar! It is the very taste of home! When, in these days of political correctness, can we Brits expect to see an end to this cultural abuse?” (NYT Magazine, March 14, 1999)

What this properly indignant but rather nationalist letter-writer neglects to mention is that the stuff is loved not only by idiosyncratic Brits, but by people  throughout the former British Empire and Commonwealth, where it goes by other trade names, including Vitamite and Vegemite.

The other top contributors to my English stone were cream slices and jam doughnuts. I could rarely resist picking up one of these divinely calorific confections while at the baker’s buying my daily loaf. Mum had always spoken longingly of cream slices, so it was practically my duty to eat them, on her behalf, as it were. They were little apple turnovers made of flaky pastry and filled with freshly whipped English cream. Nothing more can be said—they have to be tasted. Equally tempting were the jam doughnuts. In order to appreciate these, one has to put firmly out of one’s mind all ideas about doughnuts based on the Dunkin’ Donuts variety. Believe me, DD’s have their place, but the missing “ugh” in “donuts” perhaps best suggests what is missing—the supreme doughiness of English doughnuts, fried and coated liberally with a coarser grade of granulated sugar than is generally found in America, endowing them with a texture on top that perfectly complements the jamminess and doughiness on the inside. In America, donuts tend to have a hole in them rather than being filled, and even the filled ones tend to use jelly, not jam, further impoverishing the final product. (The glorious exceptions are the raspberry-jam-filled doughnuts to be found at Henion’s bakery in Amherst, every bit as good as—no, better than—any I have eaten in England. I credit Henion’s doughnuts with keeping me (more-or-less) sane during the long ordeal of writing my doctoral dissertation.)

When I got back to America I made up my mind to shed that extra stone, and lost the weight as quickly as I had gained it. It was easy: there were no more Digestives, no more cream slices or jam doughnuts, no more late-night snacks of cheese and piccalilli or bread and Marmite. I was living at home again, and Mum still cooked for four, but all I had to do was to eat my share.

I still cook for four today—old habits die hard—but now the problem is, what to do with the leftovers? Come and visit!


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