In ‘Spot the Odd One Out’, I received some wonderful comments about the contents of our breakfast in Paris.
The mystery item was, of course, the little jar of Vegemite. I’m coming to the end of a jar of it in Sydney, so this seems an appropriate time to follow up on my earlier post with my own opinion of this iconic Australian product.
If you’d rather just have the executive summary of my view, which is no doubt obvious from the title of this post, it’s the following: it’s about love, or I wouldn’t make Clive his Vegemite toast every day.
Of course, I start the day with ‘A Nice Cup of Tea’ delivered to me in bed. Clive also makes the first part of our breakfast, since I have ‘issues’ with exploding porridge in the microwave. Then, I make our toast, mine with peanut butter, his with Vegemite.
What Is Vegemite, Exactly?
Wikipedia describes Vegemite as a ‘food paste’. It is made from ‘used brewers’ yeast extract’, a by-product of beer manufacturing. I suppose many food products are made with ‘used’ ingredients, but the word does nothing to reassure me.
A Sensual Experience
Vegemite provides quite a few sensual experiences, all of them unpleasant for this writer.
Firstly, I find the sight of Vegemite completely off-putting. Its colour is dark brown and without becoming crude, I trust it is obvious what it could be said to resemble. The bright yellow and red label comes across to me as trying to fool us, saying ‘Look! This product is bright and delicious!’ But inside, it is still a mysterious dark brown substance.
When you open a new jar of Vegemite, you see a smooth surface. I can hardly stand to look at it.
As the contents gradually get used, the visual image goes from bad to worse. The rim of the jar becomes streaked with brown and the inside gets all smeary.
More repulsive to me than the sight of Vegemite is its smell. It gives off a strong, putrid (to me) odour which I cannot bear – in the jar, on toast, or on anyone’s breath. Fortunately, the aroma doesn’t waft very far on its own; you have to be close to Vegemite to smell it.
When I took the photographs for this post, I had to lean over to get the camera close to the jar. I was inadvertently hit with a strong whiff of the stuff, but usually I can avoid smelling it.
Vegemite’s texture is thick and grainy, much thicker, for example, than peanut butter. Vegemite must be kept refrigerated after opening, so when you go to spread it, it tends to glom onto the knife in cold, sticky blobs. On the rare times I get a spot of Vegemite on a finger (shudder shudder), it will not simply rinse off under the faucet; you have to scrub it off. Admittedly, peanut butter wouldn’t easily rinse off, either, but then again, I would just lick peanut butter off my finger.
The All-Important Taste Test
I could probably overcome my revulsion to the sight, smell, and texture of Vegemite if I thought it tasted good. In France, I’ve had horrifically runny, smelly cheeses that surprised with their fabulous taste. This is, however, not the case for me with Vegemite.
I asked Clive what he likes about Vegemite’s taste. He described the high salt content as giving it flavour, and especially, even though it contains no beef, that it has a beefy flavour. He didn’t have Vegemite as a child growing up in England, but thinks he had a ‘head start’ because his family did eat a similar product, Marmite.
Clive says Vegemite is definitely an acquired taste, and as many Aussies have told me, most people spread it too thickly the first time they try it, which puts them off it for life.
The key to enjoying Vegemite, says just about everyone, is to spread it thinly.
How to Make Vegemite Toast
My first boss in Australia told me most Americans spread Vegemite like peanut butter, much too thickly. Clive says, ‘That’s fatal.’ The first time I tried Vegemite, it was spread thinly but the taste still put me off it for life.
Butter is always spread first, then Vegemite. Apparently the heat of the toast, perhaps mixed with the grease of the butter, helps the Vegemite ‘dissolve’ and become more easily spreadable than it would otherwise be straight from the fridge. Sometimes Clive will have a cheese and Vegemite sandwich on bread, and in that case, the Vegemite also becomes easier to spread once it’s combined with butter.
I always place the Vegemite jar on the kitchen counter so it’s as far away from me as possible while still within arm’s reach – not right under my nose and on the opposite side of the cutting board from the peanut butter jar, so no contamination can occur. Naturally I use two separate knives for Clive’s and my toast, and immediately after spreading the Vegemite, the knife goes as far back in the dishwasher as possible.
Then, voilà! Veggie toast!
As much as Aussies diminutise words, ‘veggie’ as a noun usually means vegetable. Aussies never say ‘Veggie’ for Vegemite on its own, but as an adjective, ‘Veggie’ with ‘toast’ is a common expression in spoken conversation and on menus and cafe blackboards.
There’s no equivalent to Vegemite in the U.S., as far as I’m aware, although it’s widely available in England and, as KimB noted (thanks, Kim!), at WH Smith in Paris.
Vegemite in Song
A famous Australian advertising jingle sung by children in the 1950’s went as follows:
We’re happy little Vegemites
As bright as bright can be.
We all enjoy our Vegemite
For breakfast, lunch, and tea.
[Note: ‘tea’ is supper, or dinner – for more on the subject of ‘tea’ vs. dinner, see ‘Sunday Roast: A Proper Dinner’.]
Probably better-known to my northern hemisphere friends is the Men at Work song ‘Down Under’ which includes:
I said, ‘Do you speak-a my language?’
He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich.
Vegemite sandwiches are a school lunch staple here, similar to peanut butter and jelly (American ‘jelly’ = English/Australian ‘jam’) in the United States. While I obviously don’t like Vegemite sandwiches, I have adopted the language enough to say ‘busy little Vegemites’ when Clive and I talk with his grandsons, or reflect on how much we have to do.
But those are just words. For true love in action, it’s making the Vegemite toast. Maybe I’m a ‘happy little Vegemite’ after all.
Here’s the 1950′s commercial (found on the Internet):
Cheers and happy eating, whatever your preferences may be.
Filed under: Living with a Brit