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.”
After working as a top secret explosives maker during the war, Cyril Callister became Australia's top food technologist. In 1923, renowned for his line of wartime and outback ration products including canned butter, potted cheese, liver paste and a delectable beef extract called Bonox, he was hired by Fred Walker & Co. Knowing the commercial possibilities of an Australian version of Marmite, Walker put Callister to work. The result was a saltier version of Marmite, with the name Vegemite being chosen by Walker’s daughter from a pool of names submitted in a national competition. The irony, of course, is that Vegemite doesn’t actually contain any vegetables at all. Celery salt is as close as it comes.
Vegemite was on Australian shelves by 1924, but it took two decades for it to earn its spot alongside koalas and the boomerang as a national icon. In the 1940s, sly advertising highlighting its healthy virtues and its portability made it attractive to the Australia’s armed forces. Studies revealed that, much like Marmite, it was high in Vitamin Bs. Due to this, the Australian military added Vegemite to ration packs during World War II. Soon, the black paste became a source of national pride with posters across the country reading, "Vegemite: Keeping fighting men fighting fit." Many Australians credited Vegemite for helping the Allies win the war, with one particular odd urban myth saying that soldiers would leave pierced tins of Vegemite out in the open, allowing in botulism. Then, they would leave the tins for unsuspecting starving Japanese soldiers, who would consume it and contract the disease.
Today, according to its website, 80 percent of Australian homes have Vegemite in their cupboard. 22 million jars of it are sold every year. The “I’m a Little Vegemite” commercials are ingrained in their culture as much as the Oscar Mayer Weiner commercials are in the United States. It’s even immortalized in the Men at Work song “Down Under.”. Despite our friends on the other side of the globe loving the stuff, Americans quite simply don’t have an appetite for Vegemite. And if President Obama’s comments and these kids’ reactions are any indication, we probably never will.