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Wednesday, April 20, 2005


Culinary Shibboleth

My belov├Ęd 500g ~125-servings vat of Marmite looks depressingly low, but enough for a decent tiffin with core Brit pals.

As soon as their partners hear why I'm calling they drop the phone and run screaming from the room.

Hugo is the richest of us, said to have made his first fortune straight from school peddling some get-rich-quick scheme to the City that he got off his maths master.

His next fortune was in advertising, which none of us can understand why he bothered since he's so mean he can hardly have spent more than two or three quid off the first pile. He's the one who told us about Marmite's reliable shibboleth qualities.

Apparently - and it's such a good story none of us believes it - apparently, at his 21st birthday shindig, some glam peaches 'n' cream Americaine was eyeing him for size and commented along those lines to the crone next to her (who *happened* to be Huggy's mama).

"Needn't bother , m'dear - if and when he marries, it'll be to an *English* gel."

"Not a problem," trilled the gold digger, slipping into undetectable débutantese, "the accent thing is eezie-peezie."

"In that case, you shall come for tea, where we serve Hugo's favourite - lightly toasted brown bread ... with Marmite."

Gasp and immediate collapse back into transatlantic drawl. "My gahd! What sort of people *are* you?"

Mrs Hugo is Den Haag via Houston via New York and speaks perfect crisp unaccented English. She is brought out for formal occasions, or maybe it's us who are allowed *in* at special get-togethers requiring cuff links and detachable starched collars. I think she allows Hugo to these jaunts to "let off steam". She phones him but we never have a clue what about because he has a set standard response on every call:

He listens, then: "Well that seems pretty par for the course. Give it an hour or so and see what develops." She rarely calls back. It could be anything - children, domestiques, earthquake in the Dordogne not many dead, crisis at the office, mechanical failure of the caviar scoop in their perfect kitchen in their bijou residence in bijou Belltown ...

marmiteSuki is our "mule", bringing back fresh supplies on her husband's business trips. We're meant to be able to buy it over here via Britsbuy but for some silly reason we regard that as cheating.

Mr Suki swears it's illegal and that he'll look the other way as Homeland Security hurl her in the slammer - but what's that to a true Marmite lover?

Suke's the one who sends round Marmitey trivia like the Guardian's 100-years celeb piece.

On the question of security, Mr Suki is also the one who joked that all a terrorist group need do is pin a note on the door - "Welcome! Marmite tasting session in progress - walk right in" - and even the hardiest SWAT team will cross themselves and back gingerly out of the building.

Philippa and David - Gloucestershire + dour Yorkshire, so both turn up (which I think Dave slightly resents on these bachelor occasions). Pippa is guardian of correct etiquette and does the light spreading which probably contributed to my getting more like 150 spreadings out of the jar. She also chooses the music which allows Dave to do his embarrassed spouse thing ("Blooody hell, Pipps - not Kate Bush again" or - piercing look at me as the first notes of "Please don't Tease" ring out - "Nay, lad tell me that's never Cliff 'n' the Shadows. Ayup, Pipps can't you find any Leslie Gore?")

Immediate cue for everyone to launch into "It's my parteh and I'll cry if I WANNA", allowing Dave to shake head sadly and do his mature disappointed act. Then we resume seats with elbows off table as Nanny always insisted.

Bill is the only other guitar player of the group. We picked each other up at a Bill Frisell gig. He has furthest to come but doesn't say much, preferring to let the rest of us jabber. He has this amazing palate: he can tell where different Guinnesses come from and can usually tell when any of us has opened a new jar of Marmite. We meet up once a month to play guitar - my place/his place - where he always has a different nymph wandering about in states of disheveled undress. They all look about 16 and have interchangeable names like Courtney or Kelly or Megan or Morgana. Hannah. Ophelia-Sue. Arianna. They never join us and when I make to make polite conversation he shakes his head as if not to bother.

We munch our Marmited toast and sip the strong sugary tea and wallow on about home and the loneliness of the long distance ex-pat which segues into the even greater loneliness of the long-distance job searcher - i.e. moi. Everyone rounds on me and tells me it is getting a bit bloody silly and to pull my socks up. Then they whip out PDAs and Filofaxes and grotty little notebooks and scribble and tap.

It's agreed: one contact name from each of them by week's end, daily progress report from me or else ...

Pippa makes as if to group high-five but Dave points at the door with utterly straight face:

"Oy! You. Out! See that door? Out. There'll be no naffin' yankee-istic hi-fivin' in *my* town hall."

We laugh and Suki imitates the cool youthy handshake on herself as Hugo nods - "Blackness confirmed."

Right on cue, everyone's phone starts going and there's time to catch the ferry if they leave now. Lightning air kisses and abrazos.

"Get a photo of the jar!" someone yells over the screech of tyres.

For dinner that night - and to bolster me for "The Office" - I skip Orange Pekoe and fill the Marmite marmeet with boiling water, shake vigorously, leave stand, and finally pour into my king-size beaker. Perfect fit.

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