Spreading love and hate

MARMITE is one of those foods you either love or hate. Either way, you might think there is not much to be said for the black gooey stuff beyond its spreadability on toast.

Wrong. You could write a book about it – and someone has. The Mish-Mash Dictionary of Marmite: an anecdotal A-Z of Tar-in-a-Jar tells the history of what started out as yeast waste from the brewing industry to its global grip today on palates and minds.

Written by Maggie Hall, a Yorkshire ex-pat in the United States, and illustrated by Sheffield-born artist Dave Jeffery, it contains old-time recipes, new culinary tips, Marmite's place in medicine, education and wars and its uses apart from eating it.

"Whatever you thought you'd never see linked to Marmite is here," says the former Fleet Street journalist who has lived and worked in the US for more than 30 years, "from the student who got a good history degree based on her dissertation about the black goo, to the astronaut who picked it as his 'comfort food' on his shuttle flight.

"And how about the American family who set up a website to sell nothing but Marmite? Or the star London chocolatier whose bestseller is a Marmite-stuffed truffle and the Parisian boutique hotel that serves it for breakfast, alongside the confiture for the croissants, and the science lesson to be learnt from why the stuff turns white when beaten."

A striking feature of the book is the 27 cartoon/sketches which are the work of Dave Jeffery, from Hillsborough, but now based in Whitby. How did he come to be involved?

"Maggie and her partner live in Washington but have a second home in Whitby and we have been friends for a long time," he explains.

"When it came to looking for someone to illustrate the book she thought of me. It started off as just two or three cartoons and then it evolved into doing one for every letter of the alphabet.

"We went through the book and came up with ideas and then I went away and bashed away for several days."

These days Jeffery paints watercolours to commission and conducts art courses for a national holiday company but his background in commercial art proved useful in tackling the unusual assignment.

"When I left Wisewood Secondary Modern (as was), I was 'guided' away from taking up a place at the city art college to become an apprentice engineer," he says.

"But because of my interest in art I got into the marketing side, first with Osborne's steel and engineering company and then H Turner and Sons and GT News in newspaper distribution.

"I spent about 12 years looking after the commercial art and promotional material so I was used to that kind of pressure to come up with ideas. I enjoyed doing this, it took me back."

Jeffery, who can claim to be the designer of Def Leppard's first record cover (he and Joe Elliott worked for the same engineering firm), is a versatile artist who turns his hand to everything from small watercolours to abstracts.

"When I came to Whitby in 1998 I took over a little gallery in Robin Hood's Bay, the Forge Gallery, and over nine-and-a-half years we showed just under 2,000 works of my own and other people's," he says.

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“I am 65 this year and decided to give it up and carry on working from home undertaking commissions. I have kept the Forge Gallery online and plan an open studio next year.”

Which Marmite camp is he in? “I am a Marmite lover and I’ve enjoyed this project, it’s been a fun time,” he affirms.

“We did a book signing recently and it was interesting to see the passion people have for Marmite. They would turn up with Marmite snacks or gifts of seeds and they would sit down and Maggie would give them a little talk. It turned into much more than a signing session.”

The consummate journalist aware of the need for local angles, Maggie Hall points to two references to Sheffield in the book.

“One is about a 2008 poll which revealed the widest spread of fans was in the North, with a big concentration of them in Sheffield, Manchester and Newcastle. The other one perfectly sums up the wacky world of the mighty M,” she says.

“There are plenty of theories about Marmite, some fun, some plain stupid, but none as wonderfully silly as the one highlighted by an American living in Sheffield.”

Californian Jamie Charlotte Mitchell posted her Marmite Theory of Migratory Evolution on her blog. The librarian at Hallam University claims that while many household items don’t get returned to the place where they are supposed to be, a few constants are destined to return to the same place. Among these are the dog bowl and the Marmite.

She says the next time she visits her mother in Seattle she is sure that the jar of Marmite she took on the last trip will still be there, “sitting unnoticed on my mother’s kitchen counter, quietly controlling the movement of all temporarily misplaced articles in the universe.”

The Mish-Mash Dictionary of Marmite is available via book-selling websites.