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We’re happy little Vegemites
As bright as bright can be.
We all enjoy our Vegemite
For breakfast, lunch and tea.
Our Mummies say we’re growing stronger
Every single week
Because we love our Vegemite.
We all adore our Vegemite.
IT PUTS A ROSE IN EVERY CHEEK!
We’re growing stronger every week!

Vegemite

For most people on planet Earth, it might be difficult to comprehend how a by-product of beer manufacture should have taken such an addictive hold on the palate of every Australian.  How could something that spreads like peanut butter but tastes like mashed- up bouillon cubes become so incredibly popular?  Was it the 1954 J Walter Thompson advertising jingle, or is something more sinister at work?

Invented in 1922 by an Australian food technologist (working for the Fred Walker Cheese Company), the product was created to satisfy Australian demand for a similar British foodstuff–Marmite.  Supplies had been interrupted during World War I.  If Vegemite had been an instant and overwhelming success, I would have to question the taste buds and sanity of our Australian neighbours.  In fact, early sales were decidedly slow.

Fred Walker had the foresight to form an association with Kraft Cheese way back in 1925.  According to Wikipedia, when it was discovered that the new product did not sell like hot popcorn despite its alluring  taste, Vegemite was given away free with Kraft Walker cheese products using coupon redemption.  This was  followed by poetry competitions in which the top prizes were brand new Pontiac cars.  Sales shot up.

In 1939 Vegemite was officially endorsed by the the British Medical Association as a rich source of  B vitamins.  The spread was included in Australia’s army rations and by the late 1940s nine out of ten Australian homes had a jar in the pantry. All it took after that was the advertising muscle of an American multinational on radio and television to cement the sale to the Australian public.  Leftover brewer’s yeast with vitamins became the opiate of the masses.

The product is now produced in Australia at Kraft Foods’ plant in Port Melbourne, which rolls out more than 22 million jars per year. Virtually unchanged from Callister’s original recipe, Vegemite now far outsells Marmite and other similar spreads in Australia. The billionth jar of Vegemite was produced in October 2008

Despite being owned by Kraft, it has never been successfully marketed in the United States or any other non-English land.  New Zealand and Great Britain are the only other countries in the world where it is considered edible, although Switzerland does have a variation.  Stay tuned.

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At least once a week, usually more often, I drop in at the local supermarket to stock up. I may make the trip on foot, with a two-wheeled cart limiting my load. On more ambitious days, I’ll hook up the bike trailer I purchased specifically for the purpose. It will hold a week’s provisions, but the route to the store is tricky unless I ride on the sidewalk.

I would have to guess from the reaction that I may have the first bike trailer that has ever been seen at the supermarket. Almost everyone else arrives by car. Our Subaru can carry enough foodstuffs for a small army, but green guilt interferes, so I’m usually on foot.

There are two stores that are pretty accessible from here– Safeway and Coles. I go to Coles. Not only is it closer to where I live, it is larger and has more variety. In addition, the building houses a Chemist, a greengrocer, a fishmonger, coffee merchant, butcher, specialty foods shop, Italian kiosk, etc. Not to mention a “bottle” shop.

Coles has been in the news a lot lately since it has been “in play.” That seems to have finally been settled with the purchase of the company by a corporate entity called Wesfarmers. Safeway is owned by Woolworths (no relation to the US retailer). There is a discount war going on now between the two supermarket giants.

I have no idea what that will mean to the price of milk at the checkout counter, but I suspect that in the long run, prices will go up. There are all those shareholders to satisfy and the drought shows no sign of ending anytime soon. It is easy to justify higher prices when farmers are going under due to lack of rain.

When the first fleet landed on these shores, they brought their provisions with them. It was a good thing. The aboriginals had managed to sustain a substantial population on marginal land, but few of the new settlers showed any inclination to learn from them, or to eat what they ate.

For years, Australian “cuisine” meant nothing more than a slightly modified English cuisine, and we all know how dismal that was. During a year I spent in London, I remember staring in astonishment at a jar of peas that had been boiled to such an extent that the peas were absolutely translucent. All the chlorophyll had settled at the bottom of the jar.

I once watched in horror as a British workman slathered mayonnaise on two pieces of thick white bread to make himself a sandwich filled with nothing but greasy french fries. He was mainlining cholesterol.

Then came the immigration boom after the war. Suddenly, Australians woke up to good coffee (thanks to the Italians). Then came ethnic restaurants. Waves of Greeks, Chinese, Indians, Germans, and Vietnamese triggered a sea change in cooking.

If you are partial to “ethnic” food, you will drool in an Australian supermarket. There are shelves devoted to all the Asian cuisines and European specialties, as well as local “tucker” like lamingtons, tim tams, pavlova, emu and kangaroo. Aside from wine, the biggest success as an export seems to be the lowly macadamia nut.

Peanut butter is not popular but huge boxes of breakfast cereals tower over one entire aisle. Popcorn is only available in small packets; bulghur wheat impossible to find. Silverbeet(which I call Swiss chard) is astonishingly popular. Likewise pumpkin, which appears to apply to almost any squash, and “rocket” salad, which I would call Arugula.

The seafood selection is limited. Flathead, salmon and a fish called the blue grenadier are popular. Judging from the amount of space given over to meat, seafood devotes would seem to be few and far between, but I’ve been told that locals buy their fish from fish vendors.

And then, there is the amazing attraction to Vegemite. How does one explain the appeal of a concoction dreamed up to use leftover yeast from the beer making process. Australia’s favourite breakfast spread (now owned by Kraft, an American company) has been dropped from the menu in Victoria’s prisons. Last year, around Christmas time, several prisoners extracted the yeast to ferment fruit stolen from the kitchen. They were found severely drunk. “The issue…is not about banning Vegemite. It’s about basic safety.”

I’m sure Kraft is screaming bloody murder. Just think of the lost opportunity for prison movie product placement, “star prisoner” endorsements. Ban Vegemite? What’s next?

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