A yeast paste first eaten as a dare by brewers who had consumed too much of their own product, Vegemite was subsequently deemed fit for human consumption by accident, following an error by regulators who thought they were approving it for use as an axle grease for heavy machinery.
The dark brown spread, made from leftover brewer’s yeast that should have been thrown away, has since become an iconic Australian food, albeit one that still should be thrown away.
Vegemite’s enduring success despite tasting like salty, rancid beer has been cited by nutritionists as proof that human beings will eat anything as long as there’s enough salt in it.
Vegemite’s development resulted from Marmite shortages during World War I. While this should have provided an opportunity for Australians to liberate themselves from their addiction to a foul-tasting dark brown paste that had been imported from Britain, along with their ancestors’ stoic ability to neglect their tastebuds, Fred Walker & Co saw a business opportunity.
In 1919, one of its employees, Cyril Percy Callister, successfully blended rejected yeast from Melbourne’s Carlton & United Breweries, where it had been deemed too unpleasant even for Foster’s Lager, with salt, and extracts of celery, onion and mouldy socks, long essential ingredients in British cuisine.
The product was launched commercially in 1922, and a nationwide competition christened it with a name that was extremely similar to Marmite, but not quite legally actionable. While the company closely guards the recipe for Vegemite, it’s safe to say that it contains little to no vegetables—the strongest connection arguably arises from the product being dirt-coloured.
When Marmite deliveries resumed, Vegemite sales dropped. In 1928, the Walkers renamed the product ‘Parwill’, to make use of the slogan ‘Marmite but Parwill’. To the great surprise of the manufacturers, this pun failed to electrify the yeast spread market, and in 1935, the Walker company changed the name back to Vegemite. Sales remained tepid.
Vegemite ultimately defeated its British foe after Walker established a partnership with J.L. Kraft & Bros to market their processed cheese. The popularity of ‘Kraft Walker Cheese’ led Fred Walker to promote his earlier product by providing coupons that enabled purchasers to receive a jar of Vegemite for free. The decision to offer the spread at its correct value of zero pounds led to a significant increase in its popularity.
Walker’s willingness to try anything to foist Vegemite on the people of Australia also led him to launch poetry competitions where the winners could receive imported Pontiac cars. In response to its taste, ‘Vegemite’ was commonly rhymed with ‘plight’, ‘fright’, ‘blight’, and ‘not as good as Marmite’.
Vegemite finally prevailed over Marmite after the onset of World War II, when the English product again became unavailable. The Australian knockoff was included in army rations and became hugely popular during wartime, when shortages meant that less foul-tasting products were unavailable.
In April 1984, a jar of Vegemite became the first product in Australia to be electronically scanned at a checkout. In the current era of self-scanning checkouts, consumers frequently steal the product, due to a deep, lingering belief that its true price should still be $0.
Vegemite was sold in New Zealand for over fifty years, but it is no longer produced there, due to a lack of popularity that is either due to it being associated with Australia, or New Zealand consumers not being blinded by patriotism, and therefore responding appropriately to its taste.
In January 2017, Bega Cheese concluded a deal to acquire the spread and once again bring it under Australian ownership. It will presumably once again be supplied free with cheese.
The most common approach to consuming Vegemite is not to. In Australia, however, it’s most commonly eaten on toast with a layer of butter to counter the taste. Vegemite sandwiches often feature cheese alongside the spread, as a throwback to the days when Australians only ate it because they’d got it as a freebie, so thought they might as well eat it, since it was supposed to have vitamin B in it, or something.
In recent years, the spread has been the subject of some controversy due to its halal certification, which has left ultranationalist bigots unsure whether to boycott it in protest, or eat even more of it because it’s so despised by non-Australians.*
The most famous advertisement for Vegemite began in 1954, with a trio singing about how they were ‘happy little Vegemites’ and enjoyed it for ‘breakfast, lunch and tea’, back when tea constituted a separate meal, which makes it sound more British than Australian.
This was one of the most deceptive ads ever aired in Australia, as even the most avid fan of the spread would not be able to endure it for three meals a day. The advertisement also aired in black and white, making it impossible to verify the claim that it ‘puts a rose in every cheek’.
Nevertheless, this campaign successfully promoted the spread to children, and most Australians now grow up eating Vegemite. This has led them to normalise its repellent taste, and consider it a ‘healthy’ part of their diet. This culinary variant of Stockholm syndrome explains why nearly all Australians love their national spread, while any overseas visitors from countries other than the UK cannot understand how they can stomach it.
* The author is as Australian as, and hasn’t liked it since he was a kid. Love it or leave it does not apply to Vegemite.
There’s even more on Vegemite in the Strayapedia book, including some of its unsuccessful variants – I’m talking about you, “iSnack 2.0”. Order a signed copy here.