Vegemite is a sandwich spread made from leftover brewers' yeast extract and various vegetable and spice additives. It is very dark reddish-brown, almost black, in colour, and tastes extremely salty due to its high salt content (8% to 10%). The British are fans of a similar brewers' yeast-based product called Marmite, and consider Vegemite to be a milder, slightly differently1 tasting version of the older spread. Vegemite's initial formulation was achieved independently of Marmite's by Fred Walker, a Victorian food entrepreneur, in 1923.
Vegemite is possibly the most disgusting semi-edible bread spread in the world, and in spite of this - or perhaps because of it - it remains an Australian icon. The big surprise is that Australian parents can get Australian kids to eat it, and have made them think that it is nice, as exemplified in Vegemite's most renowned advertising campaign which features children singing a song - which has also achieved Australian icon status - beginning with the words 'We're happy little vegemites, as bright as bright can be - We all enjoy our Vegemite for breakfast, lunch and tea...'
Unpleasant truths about Vegemite:
It smells horrid - a bit like rancid seaweed.
It is very viscous, and even if an open jar of it were turned upside down, one would not have to worry about a mess for a very long time.
A jar of Vegemite will outlive any human being on the planet, due to its high salt content. This is illustrated particularly when Australian people go through kitchen cupboards that haven't been cleaned for five years... often the only things worth keeping are several jars of Vegemite at various stages of age.
Vegemite's Australian Patriotic Significance
Australian kids are brought up on Vegemite from the time they start sucking on a dummy. Many parents wipe some Vegemite on the dummy and give it to the child. In some countries this would be considered to be cruel. Actually, it is cruel, in that the parents themselves would most likely not go anywhere near Vegemite, unless they had a hangover2.
The act of giving a child a dummy with Vegemite on it, combined with extensive indoctrination about Vegemite's virtues in a child's early years, leads children to believe that Vegemite is nice. For the next several years, the parents will be forever buying Vegemite to feed the child's insatiable appetite for it. Then around the age of about 15, he or she will realise that Vegemite is not the be all and end all of bread spreads and overnight, as if by magic, will decide that Vegemite is horrible. Until, that is, they become old enough to drink alcohol, and then will consume Vegemite for the sole purpose of alleviating a hangover.
The raising of Australian children on Vegemite, combined with its early success as a method of feeding Austrlian troops in World War II, means that Vegemite occupies a prominent place in the Australian psyche as a national symbol of 'Australian-ness'. Australian expatriates are known to travel all over the world with at least one small jar of Vegemite in their luggage, for fear that this national foodstuff will not be available. Since 1935, however, when the recipe and the manufacturing method were sold to Kraft3, Vegemite has, in fact, been wholly owned and made by American companies.
How to Eat it
Most international visitors to Australia have already heard about Vegemite, otherwise their hosts will tell them about it upon arrival. The story goes that Vegemite is nice to eat, and that you just have to try it to believe how good it is. This story, however, is incorrect. Your hosts only tell you that Vegemite is nice because they want to see the expression on your face when you bite into your first piece of toast with Vegemite spread thickly on it. This is a long-running joke that Australians like to play on unsuspecting tourists*.
The barest minimum of Vegemite should spread thinly on a single slice of toast. Even this tiny bit can be very strong. The only thing known to go well with Vegemite is cheese, which disguises the flavour of the Vegemite. Despite this, Vegemite has been used in different combinations in numerous savoury recipes.