Few foods are as polarizing as Vegemite; you either love the stuff or detest it: there is no middle ground. For those in the “love it” camp, the glossy brown-black spread is ambrosia-in-a-bottle; a super-food handed down from Ninsaki herself that possesses the magical ability to transform a boring slice of white toast or cheese sandwich into an epicurean delight of the highest order. For those that detest vegemite, it is a nose-turning, lip-burning, gag-inducing hyper-saline sludge arising from the darkest recesses of some demented evil-genius’s mind, designed as a cruel and unusual punishment to be inflicted upon innocent taste buds everywhere. Me. . . well, I unapologetically fall into the “love it” camp, while those whom I have convinced to try it since I moved to the States 10 years ago almost universally do not; the one exception was Max, a shelter cat that Mindelei and I adopted in 2002, who lapped it up with zeal.
In America my friends and family are part of the vast majority. While almost everyone I have met has heard of the mythic black spread, most have no idea what it is. All they know is that much like molten lava, the contents of a well-used litter box or lutefisk, it is not something that they want in their mouths. Most, when they finally bow to pressure and cautiously agree to a little taste, invariably make the same contorted facial expressions normally associated with stubbing a toe or smashing a thumb with a hammer. While I would love for at least one person to express pleasure or at least a “hmm… that was ok,” I must admit seeing people pull these faces always makes me chuckle silently.
To a vegemite lover such as myself this kind of aversion is mind-boggling. Growing up there was hardly a day that I did not eat vegemite in or on something. Vegemite, cheese and lettuce sandwiches, vegemite and butter on crackers, vegemite on toast, and crunchy celery sticks schmeared thinly with the salty spread were staples of my childhood. Later as I started cooking for myself, all of my soups, stews and gravies incorporated a touch of vegemite to provide color and seasoning. Vegetarian friends of mine would use vegemite to make a faux beef broth to use in various recipes, and I learnt from a friend of mine that worked at a bakery that vegemite was an irreplaceable ingredient in that other iconic Aussie food: the meat pie.
For me, like most Australians, vegemite was, and is, everywhere. The savory black goo is not just a foodstuff but a cultural icon. The yellow and red label is as instantly recognizable in Australia as Ronald McDonald is in the US, while its jingle, dating back to 1954, could probably replace the current national anthem with nary a word of protest. It is so loved that there is currently an exhibition celebrating vegemite at the National Museum of Australia. Given its place in Australian culture it is hard to understand why vegemite is so reviled in much of the rest of the world.
Having said that, if you grow up with something as ubiquitous and as ingrained into the national psyche as vegemite, you learn to repect the food; treat it right and it will do the same. When it comes to vegemite, “less is more” is not just an empty platitude, but a philosophy to be taken to heart. This is not the type of food that should be slathered on toast like grape jelly, although I have seen tourists do exactly that in diners and breakfast nooks in and around Sydney. If this is one’s introduction to the spread then an adverse association with the stuff is (sort of) understandable.
If you ever get the chance to sample some of the savory spread, keep an open mind, approach it with respect and you may just discover your inner Aussie; but remember you will either love it or hate it: neutrality is not an option.