What Is Vegemite?

Posted on 20 Oct 2014 14:22

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You ever heard of a Vegemite sandwich? It's and Australian thing, as well as a New Zealander thing. If you're old enough to know the Men At Work song, Land Down Under, you may have noticed the lyric about a Vegemite sandwich and wondered, "What the heck is that?" The lyrics go like this:

Buying Bread from a man in Brussels
He was six foot four and full of muscle
I said, "Do you speak my language?"
He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich

Did you notice that Vegemite is capitalized? That is because Vegemite is not only a food but a branded product. It is a canned sandwich spread, and Australians and New Zealanders eat it smeared on toast, or as a sandwich. It is basically a brewery waste product, which is a kind of yeast slurry, something that is also used as pig feed. It is not called any of this, of course, but instead is referred to as a yeast extract to which salt, malt extract, and natural flavor is added. It is like brewer's yeast, but do not confuse it with products sold as brewer's yeast or nutritional yeast in health food stores.

Vegemite is black and pasty, looking a bit like chewed-up chewing tobacco, with a very strong taste and smell. Although Australians might describe it as salty and meaty, the fermented taste may strike you more as salty and fishy. The texture is smooth and sticky, and may even remind you of stuff you find clinging to your car engine. The fermented taste is very salty and Americans and others who taste it describe the taste in various ways, none of which express enjoyment.

Australians, on the other hand, crave it like Americans crave peanut butter. If you visit Australia, and they try to get you to try some, your best bet is to feign illness. If you try it, you'll likely feel like your tongue is going to mount a rebellion and secede from your mouth. Australians can be fierce in their loyalty to Vegemite, but I've known a couple of Aussie's who thought it was a good lark to get an American to try some (this was in my military days).


When Was Vegemite Invented?

Vegemite began in the early 1920's. It was the brain-child of an Australian businessman named Fred Walker. Walker was aware of a product from England called Marmite, which was apparently doing well. It was made from leftovers from beer-brewing, mostly a muck of spent yeast and malt. Nearby was a beer brewery called the Carlton & United Breweries and Walker wanted to find a way to use the same by-products and get in on the market himself. He asked a chemist in his employ, Dr. Cyril Callister, to start working with the waste product from the brewery and find out some things about its nutritional properties. It was, indeed, nutritious, high in B vitamins and other nutrients, and Dr. Callister developed a product that he called a "pure vegetable extract."

Walker started out with th name Vegemite for the product but after disappointing sales he changed it to Parwill, which was meant to be a joke on the name of Marmite, which dominated the market. Mar might but Par will!

Vegemite initially failed. Walker persisted in promoting the product and gave away free Vegemite, coupons with his other products, and even a couple of cars (Pontiacs) as a publicity stunt during the depression era. The British Medical Association helped by touting the spreads high B vitamin content and saying it was good nutrition for children.

On the radio in 1954 and on TV in 1956, there was even a even a cute little advertising jingle:

We're happy little Vegemites
As bright as bright can be,
We always eat our Vegemite

By the middle of the 1930's, Vegemite was selling well and by the 1940's it had become and Australian staple and was carried by servicemen as a ration during World War II. Vegemite has a very long shelf-life, and it is very nutritious, making it a good choice for a soldier's rations.

In 1926, Walker's company, The Australian Fred Walker Cheese Company merged with Kraft, under the name Kraft Walker Cheese Co. Pty. Ltd. They stopped using the Walker name in 1950.


Vegemite and Cheddar Cheese Toast
Image by Kham Tran - www.khamtran.com


Vegemite and Cheddar Cheese Toast
Image by Kham Tran - www.khamtran.com

On September 26, 2009, Kraft came up with a milder version of Vegemite spread, combining it with cream cheese. In a spectacular blunder (or clever marketing ploy?), they decided to not only change the formula, but the name. The company held a contest to come up with a name for the new product. The winner was Dean Robbins, a web-site designer from Western Australia, who came up with the name iSnack 2.0.

Australians were outraged, both by the name and the product. They took to their blogs and social media and expressed their lack of enthusiasm for the name, as well as for the taste. Kraft eventually reversed the name change and the cream cheese version is now called Vegemite Cheesybite. Being that Australians sometimes ate Vegemite in Vegemite and cheese sandwiches (sometimes with honey added), and Vegemite and cheese toast, in the 1990's, Kraft combined the spread with cheese slices in Vegemite Singles, which flopped as badly as all of their attempts to change the product. Kraft introduced a lower salt version, as well, which is still available.

As the Australian population changed, the country may be slowly losing its taste for Vegemite. Although it remains as common as peanut butter, it tends to be limited to households with kids, as, apparently, having Vegemite sandwiches for school lunch is a required part of childhood. Sales have dropped in recent times, but Vegemite still remains a quintessential Australian staple.

Vegemite open jar image © S.White - Fotolia.com

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