Black Gold

As all traveling Australians will know, the more you stay away from home the more you appreciate your sunburnt country, your beaches, people and unique culture. And you also realise that in our national adoration for one particular food, we are entirely alone.

Approximately 235 jars of vegemite are manufactured every minute. A viscous, deep black, thick and salty food spread extracted from yeast cells, it’s one of Australia’s most enduringly popular products.

It’s an icon.

And unlike other icons that have been successfully promoted and exported overseas to promote Australia (think the cuddly Koala, the Ned Kelly legend, beach culture and the red center), vegemite’s appeal and fan base has remained strictly domestic. Perhaps this is one of the reasons we hold it so dear to our hearts and bread.

Vegemite is one of those rare foods adored by an entire nation and reviled by the rest of the world. Australians eat it daily, from an early age and with great enthusiasm. Some even say it’s the reason Australia is called ‘the lucky country’.

A few years ago, Australia’s Powerhouse Museum held an exhibition honoring the top 100 Australian innovations of the last century, among them the iconic Victa rotary lawnmower, the dual flush loo, the disposable syringe, the Hills Clothes Hoist and of course, Vegemite.

The spread’s theme song, ‘We love our vegemite, we all adore our vegemite, it puts a rose in every cheek’ is known by rote by every good Australian and plays on the radio and television with comforting regularity. As Debbie Rudder, Powerhouse curator, told the ABC national broadcaster, ‘In this case, the innovation is mainly in the selling. Put a rose in every cheek sold vegemite to Australians’. And it still does.

The story begins in 1918 with Fred Walker, an entrepreneur and classic ‘Aussie battler’ who, before striking black gold, had tried his hand at everything from manufacturing hat accessories to managing an agency for racehorses and jockeys. He also manufactured the British beef stock drink Bonox.

But in 1918 his business was suffering from the changes that WWI wrought on world trade and Fred began looking around for ways to stave off bankruptcy. He negotiated a deal with the brewing firm Carlton and United Breweries to supply their yeast and then began to think about the excess yeast that these breweries were dumping. Knowing it to be rich in vitamin B, and noting the popularity of the British yeast extract spread Marmite, he decided to try for an Australian equivalent.

So in 1922 Fred hired the young chemist Dr Cyril P, Callister to develop a spread from brewer’s yeast. Cyril worked for a couple of months, creating various formulas before cracking ‘the one’. Cyril used enzymes to split open the yeast cells, extracting the contents and blending them with vegetables and salt into a sticky black paste. Fred Walker then turned to the public, announcing a competition to name his new product, and offering a 50-pound prize for the winner.

The result was a product called Vegemite. It appeared in Australian shops over 1923 and 1924, but took around 15 years to gain consumer acceptance. The spread was officially endorsed by the British medical Association in 1939, just in time for vegemite to make it into troop ration packs for WWII.

Demand for vegemite rocketed during the war years and, as most of the production went straight to the troops, home stocks fell into short supply. Contemporary advertisements ran patriotic consolations such as ‘It’ll only be available when the boys come home, it’s being used in their ration packs. Sorry folks, you’ll have to wait’.’

Throughout the forties and fifties, Vegemite secured its place on every Australian table, with advertisements claiming, ‘Children, teenagers and adults – everyone needs it daily’. The main sales push has always been vegemite’s nutritional qualities, magazine spreads urging modern housewives to ‘make a place for Vegemite whenever you set the table’. As the product’s website homepage says, ‘The vegemite story is truly inspiring. It’s chock full of Aussie ingenuity, hard work and innovation’.

Unfortunately and ironically though, this so very symbolic product isn’t even Australian owned. Fred sold the recipe and manufacturing method to American food company Kraft in 1935. That aside, the spread is still entirely produced in Australia and still uses the original recipe (the only change to Cyril’s formula being a bow to health concerns in the early eighties in reducing the salt content from 10% to 8%).

Vegemite’s foreign parentage never really pierced our love affair with vegemite, not until the nineties when a series of multinational takeovers of traditionally owned Australian companies caused a minor consumer backlash. One result of this was the launch of a series of entirely Australian-owned and produced products.

Among them was a line of products developed by Dick Smith (another famous Australian entrepreneur, Dick is also a well-known aviator, filmmaker and explorer), his most popular label being the Vegemite alternative, Ozemite.

But Philip, Dick and Ozemite aside, it’d be a safe bet that that vegemite will remain Australia’s single most popular product, and continue to be consumed almost as a badge of national identity. While ownership may rest on foreign shores, appreciation for vegemite will surely never reach them.

First published in Slow 44

Sophie Herron is an Australian food and wine journalist and editor

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