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In Defense Of Marmite

Few foods inspire the kind of revulsion that Marmite does. Just saying the word makes some people scrunch up their faces -- even if they've never tried it.

But me? I love the stuff. It started nearly 20 years ago on a cold, rainy day, when a British friend insisted that I shake the chill with a cup of Earl Grey and some Marmite on crackers. I sneered. I protested. I tasted. Revelation. Today, I love to smear its sticky gloss across a piece of hot toast. Love to twirl it around the end of a spoon, blacker and thicker than molasses, and suck it clean before the drippy tendrils catch my chin. Love to inhale its salty hoppiness, its sour-mash curdle. And when the last few drops cling to the sides of the brown-yellow jar, I love to swirl in a bit of hot water, so not a precious bit is wasted.

I can hear you all now -- eewwwwww! Believe me, I get that. What's not to hate? Its stench stings your nose. I call it glossy, but I'll give you slimy. To me, it's pure umami. To you, it's like sucking on a bouillon cube. Plus, it looks like sludge. In fact, it is a kind of sludge.

Michele Kayal is a food writer specializing in the intersection of food, culture and identity. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the late great Gourmet, Bon Appetit, Conde Nast Traveler, and many other national outlets. She writes regularly for The Associated Press and on her blog, The Hyphenated Chef.

Marmite, technically called "yeast extract," is basically what gets scraped from the bottom of the beer barrel. The British breakfast staple, which was originally sold in earthenware jars that resembled the French stockpot called a marmite, was born more than 100 years ago in a small town called Burton-On-Trent. B-on-T is also the birthplace of Bass Ale. Bass was there because the water was considered so fine. Marmite was there as Bass' garbage man: It created a use for spent brewer's yeast.

I am not embarrassed to say that I visited Burton-On-Trent several years ago, and it wasn't for the beer. I made the 135-mile trip northwest of London specifically to tour the Marmite factory.

I pulled into town expecting to see banners that said "Burton-On-Trent: Home of Marmite!" Instead, the factory, which was not even mentioned on the tourist bureau's map, sat like an ugly cousin on the outskirts -- an ugly cousin who does not smell particularly nice.

A small, brick schoolhouse of a building with a red tower feebly broadcasting the Marmite logo, the factory was an homage to Oliver Twist. Inside, the hallways were worn and dim, and the production floor clanged like a steam engine. Stainless steel casks hissed and hummed under a highway of overhead pipes, and belching cauldrons spattered themselves with pre-Marmite. At the entrance to the floor sat a bin of what looked like rotting leaves: hops residue. Even my face crinkled. My nose twitched. I looked deep into the pot ... smells like ... oh. Oh, no. It smelled like manure.

I had been under the impression that Marmite spontaneously generated during the brewing process. In fact, turning that putrid slurry into my beloved spread is no small task. The exact process is a secret, but it involves breaking down the yeast, straining out the waste and concentrating the remainder. Yeast is naturally rich in B "vit-uh-mins," as the Brits would say, but more are added, as well as vegetable extracts, spices and salt. Yes, yes, I can just hear you now: "If you have to work that hard to make something edible, maybe it wasn't meant to be eaten." Possible. But the same goes for Twinkies. And as far as I know, they're not rich in folic acid.

My poor neglected breakfast buddy even fights for respect in its own town. As a souvenir, what could be better than a jar of Marmite from its birthplace? I checked a convenience store. Nothing. A couple of supermarkets. Nothing. I finally found a jar in a Sainsbury's supermarket, where it had been banished to the aisle with unappealing items like "potted beef" and something called "toast toppers," condensed breakfast goo in flavors like bacon-mushroom. I had also hoped for the Marmite-flavored potato chips I'd been told about. But all I found were rack upon rack of "Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding" chips and "Lamb and Mint Jelly" chips. Which just goes to prove that grossness is in the mouth of the muncher.

I'd like to say that Marmite is an acquired taste. But it's just not. During my factory tour, the plant manager told me that unless they get their customer before age 3, they've missed their window. Brits like it more than anyone else, and even they don't like it that much. Only 25 percent of U.K. households actually have a jar on hand. So unlikely are the chances of conversion that Unilever, which makes Marmite, actually launched a "Love It/Hate It" ad campaign where devotees and detractors slug it out.

So who does like it? Anyone who craves a little adventure in the mouth. Anyone who believes that taste is multidimensional, that a tingle on your tongue is just as important as the flavor sliding down your gullet. Anyone who craves fullness, who lusts after round, rich, salty, earthy. I need Marmite the way deer need a salt lick. And though I can't prove it, I believe there is something nutritional that brings me back over and over, something my body intuitively knows it needs. It settles a queasy tummy. It gives me a boost of energy. And there is nothing -- nothing -- that takes care of a hangover like a spoonful of Marmite.

For people like me, the news just keeps getting better: Last month, Unilever released Marmite XO, for "Extra Old," the strongest, most pungent Marmite known to man. Made with yeast from four specially selected breweries and matured for at least 28 days -- four times longer than standard Marmite -- XO promises to curl your nose hairs and numb your tongue.

So if you've ever been Marmite-curious, now is the time to snag a jar from your nearest gourmet store, British specialty shop or online retailer (marmiteshop.co.uk is the mothership, but you can also find Marmite on Amazon.com). Open the jar and let your fantasies -- and fears -- run wild.

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