the material world: A cubist masterpiece

We use about 2.5 million cubes a day, 75 per cent of homes have Oxo in the cupboard and one in six meals incorporates it
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The Independent Culture
Oxo, the cube that went to the South Pole with Scott and up Everest with Hillary, the ingredient which, according to Katie, the sexiest television housewife of the Sixties, "gives a meal man-appeal", is not what it was. Outsold by Bisto, out of fashion with cooks (Oxo and black bean salsa?), and having to diversify to keep up its market share (Mexican, Italian, Indian and Chinese flavour Oxos, as well as Original, Chicken and - perhaps most degrading of all - Vegetable), Oxo, at 85, is looking tired.

Van den Bergh Foods, the Dutch company that merged with Brooke-Bond Oxo earlier this year, might dispute this. We spend pounds 44 million a year on Oxo cubes. The company says this means we use about 2.5 million cubes a day, and quotes market research which found that 75 per cent of homes have Oxo in the cupboard.

Something to beef about

Originally called Lemco, an acronym for the Liebig Extract of Meat Company, Oxo was invented in the 1840s by a German chemist called Justus Liebig, as a cheap substitute for beef tea. Liebig got round the problem of European beef shortages by building a plant at Fray Bentos, on the banks of the River Uruguay, where there were huge stocks of cattle. The offcuts were used to make "fluid beef"; the prime cuts were corned. By 1899, Lemco had become Oxo. In 1910, Oxo had become a cube. No one knows why Lemco became Oxo, except that it's ox with an "o" on the end.

The extract did well enough to be imitated, and by the Twenties there were dozens of companies producing it. What made Oxo the survivor was the First World War, when Oxo cubes were part of the standard emergency rations issued to troops. At home, wives collected wrappers and sent for the Oxo Trench Heater, a kit containing a stand for the mess tin and special lighters to put underneath to heat up the contents. By the end of the war, during which more than 100 million cubes had been sold, Oxo was a household name. And so it has remained.

How has the 'mighty atom' fallen?

Oxo is still a staple in mince and potatoes or corned beef stew. There are diehards who drink a steaming mug of it for breakfast, or after a chilly evening on the terraces. But the days when, with a glow of sophistication, you would throw it into your spaghetti bolognese and crumble it on to your beans on toast are surely gone. The Royal Warrant that used to grace every cube has lapsed over the years. The logo, with its increasingly droopy "Os" for eyes and squished "X" nose, seems bleary, rather than cheery.

The main reason is probably that we mind additives more than we used to, and Oxo, as well as being an additive itself ("Stir in the goodness"), contains autolysed yeast, maltodextrin, dextrose, lactic acid and a couple of E numbers. They're there to help the product taste better, keep longer and dissolve more easily - the very qualities that used to make Oxo so popular. Another reason is the declining appetite for the strong, hearty, beefiness Oxo always promoted - with pictures of cattle and lions and growing children - and a commensurate preference for pale meat and vegetables.

Don't say moo in Worksop

More worrying, however, is the spectre of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), the degenerative brain disease of cattle, which may or may not be transmissible to humans via beef products. In fact, the Oxo cube's connection with living, mooing cattle is almost abstract, so highly processed is the finished product (the meat-based ingredients arrive at the Oxo factory in Worksop, Nottinghamshire, as concentrates). The beefy taste of Oxo comes from extract, derived from fleshy cuts of meat taken from South American carcasses (where, according to the press office, "BSE is unknown"), and stock, which is made by boiling bones to such high temperatures that they liquefy. The ingredients are mixed, dried, then rehydrated to be formed into cubes. Skulls and vertebrae are not used.

It's hard to imagine any contaminant withstanding such a process, but how do you feel about putting liquefied bones in your gravy?