Wednesday, February 4


Pontifical Product Placement

Bovril, like that English delicacy Marmite and fried Mars bars, is one of those famously bizarre foods that simply fails to appeal to transatlantic tastes. (It cuts both ways, I assume, and there are probably Londoners baffled by our own enthusiasm for dayglo-colored icees drunk out of gallon jugs, though to make sense of those one must remember they exist mostly to provide exuses to hit rest-stops on those otherwise interminable western roadtrips.) It's a salty beef extract that can be turned into a hot drink, spread on toast, or used in soups, and takes its name from bos, meaning "ox" or "cow" in Latin, and the made-up word "vril" used in Edward "It was a dark and stormy night" Bulwer-Lytton's hokey 1871 "lost civilization" novel The Coming Race (about subterranean supermen descended from frogs who use the mysterious power called Vril to do...something-or-other), which, mistaken for nonfiction by theosophical cranks, has been the subject of fringe theories about Atlantis and Nazi UFOS, and may have inspired Nikola Tesla to invent remote control. (Tesla, incidentally, is also sometimes blamed, on no real evidence, for the Tunguska explosion, primarily because if it's weird it must have something to do with him.)

Bovril, also, as Ex-Laodicea reports:
was invented by a British businessman as a hearty drink for the soldiers of Napoleon III during the Franco-Prussian War. So, in a certain sense its original function was to preserve the Papal States. (It was the defeat of Napoleon III at the battle of Sedan which led to Piedmont’s annexation of Rome in September 1870). Furthermore, true to its Papal origins, an advertising campaign of ‘the early twentieth century’ (Wikipedia) boasted that Bovril, like the Pope, possesses an infallible power! In the case of Bovril presumably the power is to keep you warm at football matches, as it doesn’t seem to be much use against Prussians.
Napoleon III, if you remember, was the colorful if not terribly competent ruler of France during the middle of the 19th century, and is best known in these pages for marrying the pious and extremely good-looking Eugénie de Montijo, a Belgian-Scots-Spanish aristocrat and the second-most beautiful woman of the nineteenth century. (She also got him, if I remember correctly, to invade Mexico, an action which inadvertently pretty much discredited the Catholic cause in that country's long-running slow-motion civil war, as wrongheadedly fond as I am of poor, droopy, romantic Emperor Maximilian.)

The papal connection also found its way into advertisements, though I suspect Leo XIII didn't know it (considering the picture above shows him extending his blessing with the wrong hand), which is a pity as, since he was the subject of some primitive early short films, he never to my knowledge ever made a silent Bovril infomercial.

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