Sunday, June 11, 2006

Peanut Butter vs. Vegemite

It still makes me laugh every time I see the tiny shelf of American specialties in the "exotic foods" section of the supermarket.

The other day I was at a smaller grocery store than the one I usually go to, and the "exotic foods" section was so small that they'd put all of the mysterious oddities of the anglo-saxon world side-by-side in a tiny block of shelf-space. Boxes of Scottish shortbread were right next to individual cans of Dr. Pepper (sold at one euro and nineteen cents a piece). On the next shelf up, jars of mint sauce sat next to maple syrup (which would normally be stocked in the "Canadian foods" section of a larger French supermarket), with jars of peanut butter next and then some sort of Vegemite knock-off.

I'd never thought of myself as a huge fan of peanut butter, but after moving to France -- where they don't eat peanut butter -- I had the inevitable "you never know what you've got until it's gone" experience. Of course it's not hard to find peanut butter (tiny, tiny jars of it) in ordinary grocery stores. But the culture shock that I wasn't expecting -- however obvious in retrospect -- was that the whole range of peanut-butter-flavored products we know and love are quite impossible to find in France.

So when visiting in the US, my first purchase upon arriving is generally some "Reese's Peanut-butter Cups", and even though I'm theoretically a grown-up, my breakfast every morning for my whole visit is usually "Cap'n Crunch's Peanut Butter Crunch" (to my husband's disgust). Pardon the blatant product placement here -- I'm actually not getting paid to do this, I'm just curious as to what google searches this will attract to my blog.

So since moving to France, I've learned that the French don't eat peanut butter and they don't eat Vegemite. the Vegemite part didn't bother me so much since I'd never heard of Vegemite until my manager here was replaced by a guy from Australia. (Or so I thought -- when I told people I'd never heard of Vegemite, I found out that that line I never could understand from that one "Men at Work" song is actually "she just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich." Live and learn!)

My first experience with Vegemite was when my Australian manager picked some up at a specialty shop while we were on a business trip to London. I could see maybe acquiring a taste for it in very small doses, but man, that's pretty strong stuff!

As nasty as the Vegemite tasted to me, I knew that a lot of my French friends had a similar reaction to peanut butter. It seemed that in both cases, it was a taste to be developed in childhood or not at all.

Always eager to expand the human knowledge base through science, I decided an experiment was in order to determine which one -- peanut butter or Vegemite -- was more naturally repulsive to humans. A more ethical scientist might object to my use of my French colleagues as guinea pigs for my experiment, but I didn't have any real guinea pigs handy.

Here's what happened:

One morning I picked up some nice warm baguettes -- fresh from the bakery -- and brought them with me to work. There I cut them into small pieces, spreading some pieces with peanut butter and others with my Australian manager's precious supply of Vegemite (which he donated in the interest of science), and set the whole thing up on my desk with a little paper where everyone could vote on the question "Which is more disgusting?"

The result?

The peanut butter put up a good fight, but the Vegemite was the clear winner. :-)


Anonymous said...

So THAT'S what that line is! "She just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich."

Thank you, Chanson. My life is forever changed.

C. L. Hanson said...

See, this is why it's so valuable to read blogs... ;-)

Cyn Bagley said...

Yes... I knew that line only because I had been in South Africa and met an Aussie there. Yes, he introduced me to vegemite and yes, I was disgusted.

YUCK! I still have that horrible taste in my mouth. LOL

Rebecca said...

What a great experiment! You should send your results to the leading manufacturers of peanut butter and Vegemite. That would make a great commercial. :)

My roommates and I once had a picnic and we bought Lays potato chips in the cans, instead of Pringles. We decided that Pringles were WAY better and that the Lays commercials saying they'd won in a national taste test was clearly a lie. We thought we'd send our very scientitfic study of three people to Pringles, with charts and everything, to prove that theirs is the better chip-in-a-can. Of course, we never actually did.

That was a totally pointless and irrelevant story. And yet I'm not deleting it.

C. L. Hanson said...

LOL Rebecca!!!

You know that's why your blog is irresistible!!!

Hey Cynthia -- amazing people can eat that stuff, isn't it? ;-)

AnnM said...

What a great walk down memory lane. Now I feel old and suburban. I need to rest.

We used to buy Old El Paso flour tortillas at our local Atac. They were awful, with enough preservatives for a 300-year shelf-life. Oh, how we mourned whenever they ran out of them. And the tepid salsa. And the teeny tiny jars of Jif peanut butter.

I used to go up to Thanksgiving in Paris (once we moved out of Paris) for New Mexico green chile salsa, and of course Cranberry juice! I developped a bit of an obsession with Cranberry juice, schlepping four bags of it home on the train each trip.

Now we miss Choco-BNs, ready-to-grill Croque-Monsieurs, yogurts that aren't sweetened to within an inch of their life, creme fraiche, baguettes, le sandwich jambon-fromage, stinky cheese stores, fresh flowers on every corner, and the markets, the markets, the markets!

"It's a bittersweet thing, knowing two cultures. It's a curse to love two countries."
(from Almost French)

C. L. Hanson said...

Hi sam-i-am!!!

They had cranberry sauce and cranberry juice on the same little shelf I described here, but the one carton of cranberry juice looked kind of beat-up, like maybe it had been sitting there too long... And I don't even think about buying corn-on-the-cob in France -- every now and then you can see wrapped packages of it in the produce department of the grocery store, but it's never fresh.

Actually I think it's kind of lucky for me that I'm really not a "foodie". Of course I'm happy to have familiar foods and favorite foods, but when I can't get them, I don't miss them very much. I'm pretty adaptable... :D

Anonymous said...

interesting blog but as a brit I'd like to point out that vegemite is a cheap and wishy-washy knock off of Marmite. You really want the full yeast extract experience you have to try Marmite not the insipid vegemite. Careful when you try it, you have been warned.

But getting into the wider conversation; I live in texas now and surprised at the lengths I'll go to get english fare; bitter ale, jacobs crackers, colemans mustard (I have been known to carry it with me), HP sauce, man was I pleased to find PG tips (rather than liptons ice tea, such a perversion), rogan josh curry sauce (which my american girlfriend pretends to like when I cook it but its like watching someone eat toxic waste). I even got a letter threatening prosecution from the US customs for trying to smuggle suet into the US to make dumplings! Apparently suet is bird food here. And what is the obsession with sugar in the US? Everything is sooo sweet even the bread.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey there anonymous Brit!!!

Thanks for the heads up about "Marmite" -- I'll be really, really sure to avoid it... ;-)

Eric, come to France!!! You know you want to!!! You can smuggle some peanut butter in... :D

Anonymous said...

Hi Chanson..great blog!

Vegemite needs to be savoured the correct way to appreciate fully..white bread, toasted to perfection, a thin covering of margarine followed by some swipes of Vegemite..accompanied by a steaming cup of tea (my personal preference being Earl Grey). Great comfort food or breakfast bliss!

It puts a rose in every cheek ya know ;)

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Kate!!!

I'll have to try it that way, and see if I like it served right. :D

Indigo Eve said...

Google sent me your way! Lol, for the peanut butter not the cap'n crunch...

I have a friend who is in France on exchange and she just informed me that there is no peanut butter there! I guess you aren't allowed to mail it to France? That's what I was trying to find out when I stumbled upon your blog *grin* I can't imagine living w/o peanut butter, mind you I suppose the cheese is good and might make up for it...

Anyways this is rather random and so I shall stop rambling now, however if you Can actually mail peanut butter into France please let me know!!

Au revoir :)

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Indigo Eve!!!

Don't worry -- you can definitely mail peanut butter to France, no problem. You can also buy peanut butter here in France.

It's just that -- since most French people don't eat peanut butter -- it's a specialty item. That means it's expensive and you don't really get the selection of all of the kinds you might like...

Anonymous said...

I'm not going to lie, I'm eating peanut butter straight from the jar right now. It's delicious. Screw Vegemite, peanut butter tastes much better and once you're used to it you can eat a whole lot of it at once. Excellent stuff.

Also, I'm writing a speech on why peanut butter is better than Vegemite. Your little experiment will help me out lots. I'll be sure to credit you :).

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey eva!!!

That's excellent!!!

Be sure to report back on how the speech goes!!! :D

Scott said...

I have traveled in France and Australia. As much as I love peanut butter, there were so many good things to eat in France that it never occurred to me that there weren't any peanut butter items there.

I am sorry that you were subjected to Vegemite. Truly the most vile substance I've ever had the misfortune of tasting. I can only imagine how much worse marmite must be.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Scott!!!

It's true it took me a long time before I started to miss peanut butter because I was happy with all the other good stuff here....

Anonymous said...

Vegemite is better than Marmite!

- A true Aussie Brit.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Anonymous!!!

That's the next taste test I'll have to do: Vegemite vs. Marmite. It looks like there are some pretty stromg opinions on this... ;^)

Kratoklastes said...

You can buy peanut butter in our local Carrefour (and we are in the Deepest Darkest Auvergne)... and it's not even in the Foreign Muck section. brand name: SKIPPY. (Go Aussies... although I think it's a Yank brand because it tastes woeful compared with PB from Oz).

Vegemite - Rose Bakery on Rue Des Martyrs in Paris 5th used to have some, but we bought the last jar (for EIGHT EUROS) when we lived in Paris. Then The Lovely dropped it on the bloody floor and broke the jar.

Vegemite is nectar - a child will take to Vegemite toast more quickly than he will to red wine or olives or anchovies or Grana Padano. (These are a few of my favourite things).

The key: LOADS of butter on hot toast, and then only the smallest scraping of Vegemite. It's not meant to be slathered on like jam.

Marmite vs Vegemite is like the French Army versus the Germans. No contest... Vegemite hands down, Marmite humiliated and calling for an international coalition to come and liberate its capital.

Also, there has been an absence of any real 'Yeast Extract cognoscenti' in the comments. Why has nobody mentioned PROMITE?

All the best

France (but I'm an Aussie... please PLEASE send me some pies, soem KR Darling Downs Middle Rashers, and some nice sharp mature CHEDDAR... anyone who claims that bloody Cantal is like cheddar, ought to be bloody shot).

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey GT!!!

It's true it's not hard to find peanut butter in France, but it's just the industrial kind. I'm enough of a purist to like the all-natural stuff. I've never heard of Promite -- is it better or worse (or both)? ;^)

Also -- people claiming cantal is like cheddar??? lol, you've got to be kidding me!!!

Anonymous said...

No peanut butter in France, eh?

Well, i came across this blog when i googled 'Peanut butter in french' attempting to find a translation for a French II project.

How interesting. i'll be sure to ask my French teacher about this when i return to school tommorow... and hopefully with my project complete... =).

Rebecca said...

It's funny how peanut butter is such a childhood staple in the US and really, well, foreign outside the US! My brother moved to Spain from the US about 10 years ago and I try tp bring as many jars of PB as I can fit in my bag when I visit. He likes crunchy - very hard to find. Our PB is also a lot sweeter than that made in some other countries if they have it at all.

While traveling in Ireland with a friend from England, we were making a PB and jelly (jam) sanwich at a hostel. A kid from somewhere in eastern Europe saw what we had a leaned in to ask "Is that peanut butter!? Like from the films!?" He had to give him a taste and as predicted, he hated it.

Lorry said...

I did a similar experiment to try to determine which Danes hate more: white Valentine's conversation hearts, or root beer.

FYI, conversation hearts, but not by a very large margin.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Rebecca and Lorry!!!

It's funny how something that's a treat in one culture can be disgusting if you didn't grow up with it. ;)

Vegemite! said...

Hello all

I am now enjoying vegemite on hot buttered toast, washed down by a hot cup if tea. There cannot be a better breakfast to begin a wintery Saturday morning.

We also have promite in the house, much to my disgust. As for marmite, it is for greasing axles only, and certainly not for human consumption.

Peanut paste (showing my age here) is not too bad on hot buttered toast every now and then. Or, spread with butter on a baguette for a midday snack.

Well, there's my little contribution. I'm now going back for more vegemite on toast. Yum!

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Vegemite!!!

I have never heard of promite, and I didn't realize there was that much difference between vegemite and marmite.

Here in Switzerland, there's a very similar spread called "cenovis". They recommend spreading it on buttered bread or toast -- which is very good -- but I like it even better on bread with fresh goat cheese.

I agree peanut butter is good on toast, but I essentially never buy any....