How a suggestion made Marmalade

4 Dec 2018
Carl Ottersen

How a Suggestion made Marmalade

The Scots have a story about how, back in the time when George Washington was president, an enterprising trader shipped a barrel (or maybe it was two) of Spanish oranges to the town of Dundee, high up on Scotland’s eastern coast. He was going to sell them to the rich merchants there, for at that time Dundee was a city rich with trade, while oranges were still a delicacy, eaten only at Christmastime.

Winter storms tossed the ship carrying those oranges from one side of the North Sea to the other, so much so that all the decks were awash with water. The ship arrived in Dundee two weeks late. The men hired to unload the cargo could see that all the crates, barrels, and boxes were cracked. Precious cloth had been soaked, spices were turned to mush, and the oranges were floating in seawater that had squeezed its way through the wooden staves of the barrels. On the wharf sat a sodden mess.
Some people took the cloth away to be dried and salvaged. The spices were dried and sold for a cheaper price (some think that’s how spice got its way into Dundee cake, but that’s another story). Those soggy oranges: that was another matter.

At a moment of inspiration, someone whom we will never know suggested taking the oranges to the Keillers, who ran a small candy store in Dundee. A brisk knock on the door brought James and Janet Keiller to the doorstep of their shop, where they could see for themselves the barrel (or was it two?), oozing seawater. The porters pried open the cask’s lid and, with hands stretched forth to encourage the Keillers to take a look, explained the situation. The Keillers looked inside the watery barrel, with its soft, misshapen, orangey oranges bobbing around. A moment of hushed quiet enveloped the small crowd, as only the Scots can manage. “Can I make a suggestion?” one of the Keillers said.

“How about . . .”
And the rest is marmalade. Almost.
The Keillers knew how to make candy. They knew about the original version of marmalade as a thick paste, so dense you could cut it like cheese (marmalade goes way back to before Roman times, although the name comes from Portugal). They guessed their local market would like a “softer” version they could “spread on their morning toast”. Making it softer also meant saving on the cost of cooking the mash, and saving a penny is something Scots are famous for. The Keillers tried it on the local market, who loved it. In 1797, Janet’s and John’s marmalade became the very first labeled, branded marmalade in the world. A few more suggestions down the line and Keiller’s Orange Marmalade was as famous in the British Empire as McIlhenny’s Tabasco Sauce is in the United States.
And that’s another story about suggestions.

A story inspired by events
Carl Ottersen @ 2018

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