Monday, December 22, 2014

AAA-14 Answer one – spreading the morning

Today I’ll begin my “Ask Arthur” answers with an easy question. My friend Jacquie asks: Marmite or Vegemite?

Turns out, that question’s actually not that easy for me. Of course.

For the uninitiated, Vegemite and Marmite are both spreads made from yeast. They’re high in B vitamins and are very salty. The spreads began in the UK as Marmite, a name referring to a French earthenware cooking pot, similar to what the product was originally sold in.

In 1908, Sanitarium Health Food Company in New Zealand bought the sole rights to distribute the product in New Zealand and Australia, but they later started manufacturing a different version, adding sugar and caramel, which produced a lighter taste. Typically, fans of the UK Marmite say they hate the Sanitarium version (and probably vice versa, though I don’t know that for certain).

Vegemite, the Australian yeast spread, began production in 1922, after disruptions in supply of UK Marmite after World War One. Several decades later, Vegemite began to be manufactured in New Zealand, too, and was for more than 50 years. Local production has now ceased and all Vegemite sold in New Zealand is made in Australia.

When I moved to New Zealand in 1995, I’d heard of Vegemite, thanks in part to Australian pop group Men At Work’s 1981 hit “Down Under”. There was also that brief Australian craze in the US, with Men At Work, Crocodile Dundee, and Olivia Newton-John’s Koala Blue stores, among other things. But all that was well and truly over by the time I moved to New Zealand.

I arrived here never having tried Vegemite, and I’d never heard of Marmite. Nigel served me some Marmite on toast (he didn't have any Vegemite). He prepared it for me because I didn’t know how to use it at the time. It turns out that, though I didn't know it, Americans’ biggest mistake is to treat it like peanut butter. In fact, the way to use it is to put some on a knife and wave it over the toast (an exaggeration, but only just). I keep threatening to make a YouTube video teaching Americans how to use Vegemite/Marmite, because all the ones I’ve seen get it wrong in some way or take the piss out of Americans (like the one of an Australian teen “demonstrating” how to eat Vegemite by taking a over-flowing tablespoon of Vegemite and shoving it in his mouth like peanut butter; thinking about that still makes me gag).

As it happens, and unlike a lot of Americans, I didn’t hate it. In fact, for awhile I would often have some Marmite on toast in the morning, usually under a slice of good ol’ “plastic cheese” (individually wrapped cheese slices). I also liked it under tomato and (especially!) avocado because those both benefited from the salt in the spread.

I also use a good spoonful of the spread when I make beef stew. It adds a little colour and replaces salt I’d otherwise add. When I was a kid, my mother used Kitchen Bouquet to add colour to her stew, and when I first smelled the yeast spreads, I immediately thought of the sauce she used, so that’s where I got the idea to try it.

However, I stopped using any of the spreads (apart from in stew) when I learned that people with gout should avoid yeast. So, like many other foods associated with gout, I now avoid the spreads except for very, very rare occasions. And stew.

In answer to the question, which do I prefer?, the simple answer is that on taste alone, I prefer NZ Marmite because it’s not as salty as Vegemite. However, for me, the real answer is MUCH more complicated than mere taste preference.

Marmite is made by Sanitarium, which is wholly-owned by the Seventh-day Adventist Church, with which I have a LOT of problems, chief among them that they’re anti-gay and sexist. My bigger problem with Sanitarium itself—their bigger sin, if you will—is that they pay NO company tax, unlike their for-profit competitors. That’s just not right.

Sanitarium claims that their profits go to support charitable purposes, but that includes money that goes to the church itself, and we really don’t know a lot about what they do with that money. We do know, however, that for the company to sponsor events, they have to conform to their church’s doctrine. That’s why their “Kiwi Kids TRYathlon” events are always held on a weekday or on a Sunday and never on a Saturday, since that’s their holy day. I should point out that as far as I know, they don’t refuse to support programmes or events that welcome or include gay people or non-celibate single heterosexual people, even though those same people might be excluded by the church itself.

But, putting all that aside, and even putting aside the question of whether the majority of their charitable work is good and acceptable to secularists like me, the larger issue here, for me and many others, is the enormous competitive advantage they get that their competitors don’t get by not having to pay company tax. I think they should pay taxes like any other business (“render unto Caesar” and all that…) and then give the leftover money to their church for its charitable work, in the same way that a for-profit business shares its after-tax profits with shareholders.

There’s a third option for spreads that some people prefer over both Vegemite and Marmite: Promite by Masterfoods is a vegetable and yeast spread and is lighter and easier to spread on toast than either Vegemite or Marmite. Or, so I’m told: I haven’t tried it yet, since I’m avoiding yeast spreads in general.

And there you have it: I prefer the taste of Marmite over the much saltier Vegemite, but I only buy the latter because of issues I have with both Sanitarium and the church that owns it.

Hm, maybe I should give that Promite a go…

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