In 2011, President Obama and Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard were visiting Virginia high schoolers when a student asked an innocent enough question: What is Vegemite? In her attempts to explain the Australian delicacy, Prime Minister Gillard said this was one thing that her and the US President did not agree on. PM Gillard explained that she loved the black paste she said was a “byproduct of making beer,” but President Obama did not. “It’s horrible,” said President Obama to a classroom full of teens,“it’s like a quasi-vegetable byproduct paste that you smear on your toast for breakfast. Sounds good, doesn’t it?”
Many of you are undoubtedly saying “no, it does not.” Well, to help you better understand it, here’s the story behind Vegemite, a beloved Australian delicacy that most Americans just don’t understand.
While Vegemite is distinctly Australian, it wasn’t the first paste of its kind. In the late 19th century, famed German chemist Justus Liebig discovered that the leftover yeast from beer brewing could be concentrated and turned into a food product on its own. In 1902, the Marmite Food Company was founded in the English town of Burton-Upon-Trent, not coincidentally, in the same place as Bass Brewery. Marmite, which is still sold today and means “cooking pot” in French, is essentially concentrated brewer’s yeast mixed with celery salt, heated and then cooled. Though it wasn’t particularly popular with the English public at first, it was found to be naturally vitamin rich, especially in B vitamins. Soon, it became a staple in hospitals and schools as an easy way to ensure people got their vitamins. By the time of World War I, the British were shipping Marmite around the world, including in Allied soldiers’ rations. Australia, technically still a subject of England, was a main importer of the stuff. Throughout the war though, German U-boats would often intercept merchant ships, blowing their yeasty cargo to smithereens. "Supplies of Marmite all but dried up, leaving Australians desperate for the spread that many had come to love," writes James Callister in his book The Man Who Invented Vegemite, “They needed to find an alternative.”