Michelle Langstone on the restorative powers of New Zealand’s favourite yeast spread.
There was something solemn and formal in the turns we took to make it for one another. After a stay in hospital to remove her tonsils, my sister requested Marmite on toast as her first meal. I made it for her, and I concentrated on making sure the toast was smooth and oiled with margarine, so it wouldn’t hurt to swallow. After that, the road to recovery seemed swift, and then, as now, I was convinced it was the Marmite that did it.
I made Marmite on toast in the nurses’ station at Auckland Hospital for my friend after she gave birth. I remember holding the plate for her and passing her slices because in her other arm was her son, latched to her breast. She was ravenous, exhausted and overwhelmed, but after that she was steadier.
New Zealand adopted Marmite in a way I imagine is typically colonial; in an effort to continue the traditions and familiarity of Great Britain, but with a local flavour. Sanitarium gained the rights to distribute Marmite in New Zealand and Australia in 1908. A few decades later, the company began to manufacture it in Christchurch, although with a slightly different recipe that included more sugar. There’s an assertion of minor independence in that act: we make our own now, and we have modified it to suit us down here at the bottom of the world. The first time I went to London, I had Marmite on toast in a friend’s living room in Clapham Common, and I was taken aback by the foreign sharpness of the flavour, and was homesick for New Zealand in an instant.
The nurturing power of that yeast spread has been passed like ancient wisdom through my family. On a budget, my young mother made teething rusks for us from stale bread she baked for a long time in the oven, and then scraped sparingly with Marmite. She said we’d be miserable – our mouths sore from an intruding tooth – and we’d gum down on those rusks with the stain of tears marking our cheeks, but with the glaze of succour in our eyes. For tummy upsets, we could recite in unison, “Nothing to eat, or if you must, a plain, dry piece of toast with Marmite and NO MARGARINE.” Strangest but best of all was the teaspoon of Marmite stirred into a mug of boiling water and sipped slowly to ease a stronger digestive complaint.
There is a distinction here that is minor, but that matters.
“Comfort food” is a term most used to describe meals that make you feel good. All my life that has felt like a saccharine, barely formed idea, and one that brings with it endless tropes of sad women spooning ice cream directly from the tub into their downturned mouths.
Comfort food: the better part of a pack of biscuits, scoffed in your bedroom. Comfort food: a large bar of chocolate, inhaled in your parked car after a bad job interview.
In her book Women Who Run with the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estés wrote something that has always stayed with me: “The difference between comfort and nurture is this: if you have a plant that is sick because you keep it in a dark closet, and you say soothing words to it, that is comfort. If you take it out of the closet and put in the sun, give it something to drink and then talk to it, that is nurture.”
Comfort food is something you make for yourself, a gentle pat on the back in a time of difficulty, and it is a fleeting salve. Marmite is nurture food. Its truest expression is when you make it for someone else, to strengthen them, to give them the fortification to carry on, the tools to make a change, or grow in some way. Marmite on toast is the carrying aloft of someone from a dark place into a lighted room.
In this way, across sadness or through illness, Marmite on toast became the thing to proffer. A panacea, it could also form bonds and build understanding.
I made Marmite on toast for my cousins who came over from America in 1984. I was shy that holiday, and hid in my mother’s skirts most of the time, but at breakfast I came into my own, handing out plates of toast proudly. They were dubious at first – their inherited culture was heavy on sweetness – but they fell in love with it. It became the morning ritual for us children, to fill and steady us so we could go out into the day with robustness, and show our country off to the best of our ability.
Once, when my nephew was three and I was 26, we sat on the grass and were both in love with the little daisies all around us that had grown because his dad hadn’t mowed the lawn. The Marmite on toast lay in squares between us, and I’d eat one, and he’d gaze at me with huge eyes, and push my hands away when I offered him some. It meant so much to me that he would eat it, because visits with him were so rare, and troubles so deep, that all I could think was that this offering would sustain him until we were reunited. It was a vow I offered him, a bond between us that would not break, no matter the distance.
Last October, Mum made Marmite on toast for my dad and I watched him take a bite and keep it down, at last. His hands were shaking, and mine shook too as I made some for myself. We ate together slowly, and watched Robin Hood on television while we waited for the ambulance to come and take him to hospice. Little by little, all our lives and memories came crowding into that room. While we chewed, the edges of safety redefined themselves around us. Over that simple meal, we built a kind of quiet courage to carry us through the next part, and into the unknown of what was yet to come.
This article was first published in the March 2019 issue of North & South.