THE MARMITE centennial in Britain prompts me to develop a thesis: National or creedal groups tend to keep their boundaries strong by pretending to like foods that others find distasteful. Through long conditioning, members find it possible to tolerate the taste of their chosen food. But they delight in hearing the agonized comments of outsiders who have been forced or beguiled into eating it.
First example, Marmite. In the New York Times (January 24) Warren Hoge, alerting us to the centennial of Marmite, described it as "a brownish vegetable extract with a toxic odor, saline taste and an axle grease consistency that has somehow captivated the British." They buy 24 million jars per year. "No foreigner has ever been known to like it," Hoge states, and that adds to its iconic status. Mark Wearing says, "Our research shows that if you haven't been exposed to it by the time you're three, it's unlikely you'll like it." So much for Anglicans.
Next, lutefisk. At an Internet site devoted to it, I read that reporting on the first bite is "a bit like describing passing a kidney stone to the uninitiated." Some describe it as "nauseating sordid gunk," "unimaginably horrific" and capable of inflicting "lasting psychological damage." Lutefisk (not related to "Luthepisc," a name for Lutheran-Episcopal full communion) is dried cod treated with lye.
I have faced this dish annually at the St. Olaf College Christmas Festival, and after 12 years am able to eat it. The Sons of Norway and various lodges and church groups hold rites to gorge on lutefisk in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Greenland, etc. So much for Lutherans.
Third, haggis. I have spoken at some Bobby Burns festivals (January 25) where Scots and their descendants gag at haggis and pretend that they enjoy it, while they at the same time pretend to understand the dialect in Burns's poems being read concurrently. …