By Nicole Partridge
Recently, a friend of mine visited from the United States. As it was her first trip to Australia, I took her to all the usual Sydney tourist attractions: the Sydney Opera House, the Harbour Bridge and a walk from Bondi to Bronte. My Texan friend even got up close and personal with a koala. On the last day of her Aussie adventure, I introduced her to another iconic experience: Vegemite.
For the uninitiated, Vegemite is a thick, black, savory spread made from brewer’s yeast that has become a cultural marker for many Australians. It’s up there with lamingtons, Tim Tams and the Hills Hoist. In fact, there is a school in the western suburbs of Sydney that encourages refugee children to try Vegemite as part of their cultural orientation.
From as early as I can remember, our day would begin with Vegemite on white toast, downed with a cup of English breakfast tea as a nod to my English heritage. Then Mum would pack me off to school with triangular-shaped Vegemite sandwiches stuffed neatly alongside a green apple in my small metal lunchbox.
It wasn’t quite Vegemite for “breakfast, lunch and tea,” as the jingle suggested, but it was close.
I grew up loving the stuff that former President Barack Obama once described as “horrible.” Why some folks like Vegemite and others don’t, I’m not sure. Could it be that early exposure to Vegemite influences adult food preferences, as the American psychologists Paul Rozin and Michael Siegal reported in their 2003 study, “Vegemite as a Marker of National Identity”?
From the moment they could swallow, my kids ate Vegemite on little squares of bread, which I’d dutifully pop into their open mouths as if they were baby birds. When they got a little older, I’d smear Vegemite on crumpets and Sao biscuits and on sandwiches in their lunchboxes.
My Texan friend knew nothing of Vegemite other than the line from the 1980s Men at Work song “Down Under,” “He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich.” I smiled and told her I’d make her an honorary Australian if she dared to try it herself.
“Right, Di … it’s the moment of truth,” I said, buttering slightly toasted bread (white, of course) and smearing on just the right amount of Vegemite.
Now, I should point out that there is a very scientific formula when applying Vegemite, though everyone has different opinions about it. Personally, I like lashings of margarine and just a rub of Vegemite. My husband likes to mix his Vegemite with honey, while my youngest daughter likes her Vegemite scraped ever so lightly on top of a fluffy piece of white bread.
The consensus seems to be that less is best. “It’s not like Nutella, you can’t scoop it on,” the actor Hugh Jackman told the “Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon in 2015. Jackman went on to explain how he thought Vegemite should be eaten: on warm toast with melted butter. Fallon took the taste test, as did my Texan friend. Fallon was successfully converted, but my friend, well …
She took a bite, chewed slowly, nodded and then swallowed. “Mmm, not bad, Nicole,” she said. She didn’t seem convinced.
I have since learned that there are myriad weird and wonderful ways the spread can be used: Vegemite ice blocks, Vegemite pizzas, even a Vegemite cocktail. Developed in the 1920s by an Australian chemist, Cyril P. Callister, Vegemite struggled at first to compete with the British spread Marmite. But within 20 years, Australia had embraced it.
Science tells us it’s good for pregnant women, and a Vegemite representative says 22 million jars are produced each year. The spread was featured in this year’s safety video for Qantas Airways; the singer Miley Cyrus has a tattoo of a Vegemite jar on her arm (her Australian fiancé, the actor Liam Hemsworth, has one to match); and a right royal stink erupted last year when a cafe in New South Wales served a deconstructed version of Vegemite toast and charged $7 for it.
Back to my friend Di: She’s not a die-hard Vegemite fan like me.
“It’s tolerable,” she said after taking a bite, as you can see in the video above. When I asked her to eat more, she refused.
I might just have to renege on my commitment to make her an honorary Australian.
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