Eating the Past

Oxo Cubes, Housewives and Witchcraft

Oxo cubes were invented by the Liebig’s Extract of Meat Company in 1910. By then, the British company was already one of the largest cattle ranching and food production enterprises in the world, whose phenomenal growth was secured by extraordinarily successful marketing. Drawing heavy inspiration from the Maggi company’s ‘Kub’, released in 1907, the Oxo cube, with its insinuating, canine smell, became their flagship product, and a fixture in British kitchens.

Throughout the twentieth century, and particularly in the aftermath of WWII, the Oxo cube was advertised to women as an aid to their cookery, to be consumed by men and children. These adverts worked not just through reinforcing and extending gender norms, but by mobilising two classic characters of patriarchy: the witch and the housewife.

GIF by Ioana Mincu Instagram: @i1acampi1a.

The advertising of the Oxo cube oscillated between the didactic and the aspirational. It both taught women to do as the adverts told them, and suggested that they would be better wives and mothers if they did. Oxo advertising often used ‘role models’ to sell the cube to women. These included Canadian British actress Barbara Kelly, famous for appearances on What’s my Line, and the food writer and ordained national treasure Mary Berry.  They cemented a vision of the Oxo cube as both a helping hand, and as a yardstick women should reach. ‘Any cook’s a better cook when she uses Oxo’, declared a Good Housekeeping advert from December 1955.

Two figures, in particular, became the public face of the brand. First ‘Katie’, played by Mary Holland, and then her successor, the ‘Oxo Mum’, played by Lynda Bellingham. Both characters were created by the advertising company J Walter Thompson. They took over the management of the brand in 1957, tasked with undoing the cube’s association with rations, wartime, and cheap food. Their key tool was the long running series of TV adverts which saw Katie not just feeding her husband, Philip, but enchanting him nightly with her meaty stocks.

‘Cooking with Oxo’ advertisement featuring Katie, 1960s.

The campaign relied on the uncanny eroticization of dried beef stock. In 1969, the journalist Barry Norman wrote in the Daily Mail: ‘Katie still looks as fresh and dewy as she did in 1959 when she first learned the magic trick of giving her meals man appeal.’ Mary Holland later commented that these Oxo adverts were ‘certainly the first of the sexy commercials. I didn’t think of myself as a particularly sexy person, but I was certainly the first person on television, for instance, not to wear a roll-on girdle. Everybody else did. So we broke new ground.’  Her television husband, Philip, (who was so interchangeable that he was played by two different actors in the course of the decades) became the everyman not just for the company’s consumers but for its financiers and shareholders. Reporting the parent company’s profits in 1963, the Daily Mail wrote, under the headline, ‘Jump in Oxo Profits’, ‘Life with Katie, Oxo’s television housewife, is very satisfying indeed, judging from yesterday’s record results…’. Underpinning the incessant innuendo is the elision between what the ‘fresh and dewy’ Katie provides: meaty stock and marital sexual availability. The slogan had the rhythm of a spell: Oxo gives a meal man appeal. Women providing food and sex are two corner stones of nuclear-family patriarchy.
This spell-like quality of Oxo adverts operated through a wry domestication of witchcraft. Cooking with Oxo, when done by Katie and the Oxo Mum, is configured as a gently bewitching process. The Oxo-enriched meal is granted mystical properties to heal family squabbles and transform social relations. The bubbling pot of meat, to which Oxo is added, becomes a metaphorical cauldron once the powder is added, always accompanied by the distinctive visual trope of two fingers crumbling cubes. The cameras repeatedly focused on Katie’s, and the Oxo Mum’s, hands when she adds the aphrodisiacal ‘magic trick’ of the ‘man appeal’. After Katie left the screens in 1975, the branding picked up and emphasised the erotic qualities of Katie’s fingers, with a new logo, in which the cube’s X was made up of two slender, crumbling fingers. The gesture is distinctly reminiscent of the witch and the bubbling cauldron.

Image by Alessandra Nasta

When the role was taken on by Lynda Bellingham, the ads built up a storyline of an erotic marital relationship, and continued to revolve around the approachably sensual crumbling of the cube into the pot. A recurring theme of a romantic weekend in Preston became a trope around the dinner table. ‘Remember Preston’, the ‘Oxo Mum’ whispers to her hapless husband. The licking of lips accrues two meanings: of remembered eroticism, and of the delicious meaty gravy. The adverts channel a longer history of the uncanny interconnection between women feeding men, sexuality, and witchcraft, and Katie/the Oxo Mum is the happy witch of the kitchen. Promoting her in that role, of course, was to reproduce the structures of power which continued to tie women to unpaid, unaccounted domestic and reproductive labour, of which cooking and sex are two of the most significant elements.

‘Remember Preston’ Oxo advertisement, 1980s

The question, then, is what is the magic in that little cube? How does Oxo give a meal man appeal? It’s not the dried beef stock, or the ‘nine good ingredients’ that the company proclaimed. What she is crumbling in is a much more elaborate set of material relations and psycho-social associations; an imperial and post-imperial concoction. Inside the cube is the condensed output of a huge imperial land-holding project: Leibig’s Extract of Meat Company alone owned upwards of a million hectares at their peak. Katie and ‘The Oxo Mum’ were the last step in a chain of material and ideological transformations of land into cow into subjectivity. In obscuring the huge backdrop of labour – ranch work, land work, slaughter, butchery, dock work, coal mining and much more – that went into the cube, the product becomes a convenience food which can magic away the mother’s labour by making a meal mouth-watering in seconds.

Image by Ellie Ryder Instagram:@hollowfauna

In the case of Katie and ‘the Oxo Mum’, the role became both symbolic and dangerously personal. Both Mary Holland and Lynda Bellingham came to be associated with the role as individuals, not just as professional actors. A 1969 article in the Daily Mail, ‘Where Katie stops and Mary starts’, captures this uncomfortable duality: ‘it takes a distinct effort to remember that Katie and Philip don’t actually exist’. Katie’s successor, Lynda Bellingham, was to be known on screen by her own first name, Lynda, but no one ever calls her that, just ‘Mum’.

The transition from Mary/Katie to Lynda/‘Mum’ was meant to capture changing times. According to the advertisers, the new films presented a more chaotic, realistic vision of domesticity: ‘this campaign was based on research that showed family life was NOT all sweetness and light: today’s women associated it with washing, noisy children, fighting, lack of sleep, isolation and drudgery. One woman even described home life as ‘war and peace!’ The challenge, of course, was to sanitize and transform this conflicting reality into an appetizing sales pitch. The brand’s ad-man, Paul Hackett, remarked that when it came to the new Oxo adverts there was a line: ‘in fact, Oxo commercials exist that are so close to the raw seam of daily domestic trauma that they don’t dare air them. “It would be overstepping the mark to present and confirm the worst aspects of family life – aspects that are best forgotten,” says Mr Hackett’. What this ‘raw seam’ and ‘daily domestic trauma’ consisted of in the unaired adverts remains unclear, but the violence that underpins the nuclear family, and the patriarchy which Oxo so consistently refracted into marketing from its inception, is close to the surface.

Lynda Bellingham became so deeply associated with the product that her career largely faltered after the adverts ended. Throughout her time as ‘the Oxo Mum’, tabloids were fascinated with her personal life. It is an uncomfortable, but pertinent, fact that Lynda Bellingham was, while the adverts were being aired, in a long violent marriage, followed by stalking and death threats from her former husband. It was a situation made more tense, she noted, by a clause in her contract which required Bellingham to maintain a public image as a happy housewife. She later became a prominent campaigner against domestic violence. Oxo adverts often verge on recognising the threat of violence. Mary Holland reflected later of Katie: ‘She’s not perfect. One time she left the mincemeat at the butcher’s and poor old Philip had to have tomatoes on toast. My husband would have killed me if I’d done anything like that but Philip was an absolute lamb about it’. They made nice for the cameras, but the loitering presence of male violence persists.

The Oxo kitchens were designed as a microcosm of British society. They strive to represent an every-family, with distinctively banal idiosyncrasies, that make them entirely generalisable. Watching Oxo adverts now, and smelling the cubes’ dusty scent, reminds us of the long history of how global, industrial food systems have been bound up with the reproduction of gendered social relations in the home.

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