Anybody who knows an Australian
has heard of Vegemite. It is usually described as a thick, black, sticky, salty yeast
spread for bread. Sounds horrendous, doesn’t it?
The history of this product is rather interesting, and is, in many ways, a snapshot of Australian culture. Introduced in 1922 by a fellow named Cyril Callister, Vegemite was created in an attempt to figure out what to do with brewery waste. That’s right, folks, Vegemite is what’s left over after brewing up beer.
Vegemite was not a very big hit in Australia until the Great Depression smacked into the world in 1929. When the depression hit, parents were concerned about how to pack the most nutrition into the most people for the least amount of money. Vegemite provided a solution, being very high in B vitamins and very inexpensive. It could be spread on toast or crackers, it could be used as a soup base, it even turned out that it made for a marvelous seasoning mixed in with ground beef (which Aussies refer to as ’mince’). All in all, it was a miracle food, good for the kids, good for the budget, and sales began to truly take off.
At some point in the 1930’s, Walker Cheese Company, which manufactured and distributed Vegemite, was purchased by the American corporation, Kraft Foods. An interesting point here is that although Kraft is a US company, it has never marketed Vegemite in America.
By the time World War II came along, Vegemite was in such high demand by the populace that preference in distribution was given to Aussie troops, often leaving the people back home without their Vegemite toast in the mornings.
In 1954 the Happy Little Vegemite jingle was heard for the first time. This jingle is as much a part of Australian culture as Waltzing Matilda or the kangaroo. There isn’t an Aussie alive who can’t sing it, and very few who don’t crack a grin when they hear it. I’m not sure, but I think this may be the longest running jingle in advertising history, as it is still being heard in advertisements today.
In the early 1970s, Vegemite introduced the slogan "Pass the Vegemite please, Mum", which became a popular catch phrase throughout Australia and can still be heard in use today.
Today, Vegemite is found on every breakfast table in Australia. Restaurants pass out small packets of the tarry black ambrosia the way that American restaurants hand out packets of jelly or catsup. And, with the size of the world shrinking down to next to nothing, Vegemite now enjoys worldwide notoriety of a sort that it had never before experienced.
I am a flag waving American girl, and my own introduction to Vegemite came through chat room discussions with Aussies on the net. They would wax poetic about this strange sounding stuff, and I would respond that it sounded hideous to me, thankyouverymuch!
Little did I know that I would end up falling in love with, and becoming engaged to, an Australian. After a few years, I went with him to visit Australia. We went to Brisbane to hang out with mutual friends so that I would not have to run the future in-law gauntlet on my first trip to the Land of Oz. Of course, there was Vegemite in our hotel suite. And of course, I refused to touch it. Touch it? Hell, I wouldn’t even KISS Isaac after he had eaten it.
A few days into our trip, a half dozen friends were visiting us in the suite, and Isaac decided that now was the time. He made some toast, buttered it, scraped a thin layer of Vegemite onto it, and forced me to taste it. Amidst an uproar of laughter from beer guzzling Aussies, I promptly stood up and spat it out the window!
And a few hours later, I was thinking about that strange taste, and woke Isaac from a sound sleep. "Lover?" I said. "Will you make me some more Vegemite toast?" I was well and truly hooked.
Terry Pratchett put it best, when he wrote about it in his Discworld book, The Last Continent. He described it as being burnt beer soup with a ton of salt in it, and that it tasted dreadful, but was bonzer stuff on bread, Mate.
Pratchett was right.
For the uninitiated, there is a right way and a wrong way to eat Vegemite. The wrong way is to treat it like jam or peanut butter. This is NOT something to spread thickly, at least, not for the novice. Make some toast, butter it liberally, and then scrape a very very thin coating of Vegemite onto it. You want to see the bread through the Vegemite, or you’ve put far too much.
Of course, some of us (ME!) spread it like peanut butter. We also order it from the sole US distributor by the 5 pound tub, which lasts the true Vegemite connoisseur about 6 weeks.
And finally, since everybody needs to at least see these brilliantly lyrical lines, The Happy Little Vegemite Song!
"We’re happy little Vegemites
As bright as bright can be.
We all enjoy our Vegemite
For breakfast, lunch and tea.
Our Mummies say we’re growing stronger every single week
Because we love our Vegemite.
We all adore our Vegemite.
IT PUTS A ROSE IN EVERY CHEEK!
We’re growing stronger every week."
Try it, spit it out, and try it again. You’ll like it.