Weird and wonderful Vegemite on its 100th birthday

Vegemite celebrates its 100th birthday

It’s our national breakfast spread, loved by millions of Aussies and loathed by pretty much everyone else around the globe.

Yes, it’s Vegemite and it celebrates 100 years this year. But just how did a sticky, salty black paste come to become an emblem of our country?

Here are some odd facts about this dark delight.

It came into being when supplies of Marmite were disrupted during World War I and was invented by Cyril Callister, who developed it as the Aussie answer to the lack of the UK product.

Beer waste

Mr Callister used leftover yeast from Carlton and United Brewing, mixed it with celery and onion extracts and presto bongo, beer waste makes Vegemite.

There was a competition to name the new black paste – new black paste probably not being a name that was going to catch on – for a prize of 50 pounds.

And while we know the prize money and the name, and even who selected the winning name – the daughter of the owner of the company that produced Vegemite, Sheila Walker – no-one thought to write down who actually came up with the name. So there should be some descendants out there who are ticked off, if only they knew who they were.

Vegemite wasn’t an instant hit, in fact it took decades to take off. You have to admire the owners’ persistence, if nothing else. Few brands will be given 20 years’ grace until they become popular.

Name change to Pawill

To boost flagging sales, there was a short period in the 1929 where the name was changed to Pawill, as in if Marmite, then Pawill. It died a natural death, probably due to the cringe factor. Did they have cringe factor back then?   

It finally took hold after it was given away for free. People love free stuff.

The original owners, the Fred Walker Company, joined with the forerunners of Kraft and Vegemite was given away for free with cheese products.

At one point you could even win a Pontiac if you bought some Vegemite and, as a result, sales soon outstripped competitors Marmite and Promite.

It was also included in defence force rations in World War II and endorsed by the British Medical Association as a rich source of vitamin B. One teaspoon of Vegemite contains 25-50 per cent of your recommended daily intake of thiamine, riboflavin, niacin and folate.

Vegemite is a bit coy about the salt content, but it’s not as bad as you think. One teaspoon – why is it always a teaspoon – is only 5 per cent of your daily recommended salt intake. I’ll take that, plus, who eats a teaspoon of Vegemite at a time?

No debate

WebMD says the source of Vegemite’s flavour is “under debate”.

No, it’s not, it’s salt. The main flavour of Vegemite is salt. There is no debate.

That memorable jingle Happy Little Vegemites first aired on radio in 1954, and had a revival in the 1980s, which is why everyone of a certain age can sing the words.

On its website, Vegemite claims more people know the words to Happy Little Vegemites than the national anthem, which is a bit of a stretch, but it’s their 100th birthday, so I’ll let it go.

Vegemite was originally sold in porcelain containers and if you have one kicking around the shed get it valued because they sell for around $50 each now.

Vegemite was the first product to be officially scanned using a bar code in a supermarket. I say officially, because I’m sure no-one just suddenly went, ‘let’s try this’ and away they went. There were years of testing, but that doesn’t make for a good story.

Vegemite is still made in the same factory in Port Melbourne where it all began in 1923 and the billionth jar was produced in October 2008.

Kosher controversy

There was a bit of a kerfuffle in 2005 when Kraft stopped making kosher Vegemite. Jews and gentiles united to protest and the issue was even raised in parliament.

After nine months, the company relented and began making it again. You can tell it’s kosher if there is a small ‘k’ on the label.

Vegemite’s strong umami flavour has seen it grow in popularity for things other than a breakfast spread.

You can stir some into stews, make it part of a marinade and pop it into pan juices to add a bit of depth to gravy and sauces.

My dad used to put a teaspoon into hot water for a breakfast drink. Cheap and weird – sums him up really.

In the past few years, Vegemite has created some brave crossovers including Vegemite chocolate, Vegemite hot chickens and even Vegemite hot cross buns. None have lasted on the shelves, but the publicity was undeniably more important than the sales figures. Smart work, Vegemite.

Do you love Vegemite? Do you use it any other way than as a spread? Why not share your tips in the comments section below?

Also read: Classic scones with jam and cream

Written by Jan Fisher

Accomplished journalist, feature writer and sub-editor with impressive knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income, issues that affect Australians planning and living in retirement, and answering YLC members' Age Pension and Centrelink questions. She has also developed a passion for travel and lifestyle writing and is fast becoming a supermarket savings 'guru'.

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