I heard about Vegemite years ago. I even saw ads for it when I lived in Hong Kong back in the early 1980s. There was, of course, as significant Australian expatriate community in Hong Kong. I heard that the spread was a by-product of the beer brewing industry – the dregs from the brewery vats. I knew some Australians while I was living there, and I liked them, but for or some reason, I never brought myself to try Vegemite when I was over in that part of the world. A few weeks ago, I was strolling through World Market over near The Galleria in Hoover and spotted some Vegemite on the shelf. I decided it was time to try it, so I bought a little jar – 220 g to be exact. I had to look that up to see how many ounces that would be (since we in the U.S. still use the old system of measurement). It comes to around 7.76 ounces.
I took the jar home, announced to my family that we now had Vegemite in the house. According to the label, it is concentrated yeast extract, a rich source of Vitamin B and a rich source of folate, with no artificial colors or flavors – I’m sorry, make that no artificial colours or flavours – that’s how the Aussies and the rest of the English speaking world spell it. I was looking forward to my new international food experience, but it still took about a week for me to open the jar.
It happened on a Sunday afternoon. Looking for a snack, I reached for the Vegemite. My wife had purchased some freshly baked hot dog buns at Winn-Dixie the day before, so I carefully spread the Aussie product on the open bun, closed up the bun and took a bite. “Whoa! Why in the world,” I thought, “did anyone ever think that this stuff would be edible?” This was not a happy encounter. I decided to finish what I started. I had not had lunch, and surely this would be nutritious. I just wasn’t sure what I was going to do with the rest of that jar. I wasn’t sure what to tell my family, I didn’t want to say, “This stuff is terrible,” after I had so proudly proclaimed the arrival of a new foreign cuisine. After I had consumed my Vegemite sandwich and the salty bitter taste had subsided, I have to say that my body did indeed feel nourished. I decided I needed to find out how the folks in Australia eat it.
A quick inquiry on the internet revealed to me that I had approached Vegemite all wrong. First, I learned (as if I hadn’t already figured it out) that Vegemite is "an acquired taste." Second, I read a comment that Vegemite does not go well at all on “these American sugary breads.” That freshly baked hot dog bun was quite sweet. As I read further, I saw that Vegemite could be spread on white or wheat bread, and that the best way to enjoy it is to toast the bread, then slather on some margarine prior to spreading a thin layer of Vegemite (I had spread it much too thickly the first time). The writer claimed that butter would do, but margarine is the best thing to use. Well, I had to draw the line there. As I’ve stated before, I am with Julia Child on this: “I always use butter. I never use, nor do I mention the other spread.” Furthermore, margarine is not natural and can even be unhealthy.
Nevertheless, with that bit of encouragement, and the discovery of what I had done wrong, I was determined to make this international food experiment work. A few days later, I took a slice of wheat bread, toasted it, applied some butter then spread a thin layer of Vegemite. This time, it was not an awful experience! It was actually quite tolerable. My taste buds knew not to expect anything like the sweet creamy peanut butter that American kids grow up on, and certainly not anything like jelly or jam that one would apply for a sweet treat at breakfast. This taste was unique, a salty taste (though there are only 173 mg of sodium per 5 g serving), with a not-quite-bitter edge to it. This time I knew that I could indeed acquire a taste for the product.