Monday, April 30, 2012

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Vegemite

     On my trip to Australia in 2004, like many tourists, I wanted to see and experience the local sites and flavor.  One of these foods was vegemite.  Along with kangaroos, Foster’s Beer, koalas, the late Crocodile Hunter, and saying, “Shrimp on the barbie” and “G-day, Mate,” vegemite is one of the most quintessentially Australian cultural icons.  “He just smiled and gave me a vegemite sandwich,” sing Men At Work in their 80’s hit, “Down Under.”  I was eager to try this dark brown pasty spread, even though I’d heard it was overly salty and nasty.
     But now let’s turn to vegemite’s history.  I was surprised to see it was so well documented.  Unlike many/most foods, its exact invention date and inventor are conclusively known.  World War I had disrupted the importing of British marmite (a similar spread, dating back to the 19th century), so the Australians were keen to devise their own variant.  To this end, a Cyril P. Callister was instructed to make a new treat made from the brewer’s yeast waste from the Carlton & United Brewery.  He used this yeast extract, blended it with celery and onion extract, and salt, and voila, in 1922 vegemite was born.  It took a while to gain a footing, but by the 1940’s it was hugely popular in Australia.
     It’s most often eaten on buttered bread/toast, or as a sandwich, which adds another slice of buttered bread, cheese, and occasionally lettuce, tomato, and even avocado.  Vegemite is also vitamin rich, being an excellent source of B vitamins like thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, and folic acid (although unlike marmite, it has no B-12).  It’s also fat-free, has no sugar added, and can be enjoyed by both vegans and those with celiac disorder, as it contains no animal products or gluten.  Besides marmite, other yeasty spread versions include the Swiss cenovis, the German hefeextrake, and the Australian promite.
     Returning to my personal account, once at my friend’s apartment in Brisbane, I pretty much immediately badgered him for vegemite.  There was a slight problem with this.  My friend informed me that it wasn’t usually found on restaurant menus, and as he wasn’t a fan he was reluctant to pick some up at the market.  Fortunately, he lived in an apartment complex, and some of his neighbors were Aussie natives.  One of his friends agreed to bring some over for me.  I remember she and her friends’ reaction was mostly puzzlement—they didn’t seem to understand why I was eager to try it.  But I buttered up some bread, spread on some vegemite, and had at it.
     Anyway, long story short, I was rather ambivalent.  Sorry to be anticlimactic, but there it is.  It wasn’t awful—I’d heard it was gross, but the bread and butter seemed to mute the saltiness.  Yet I can’t say it was really tasty, either—I couldn’t imagine buying it and eating it regularly.  I was told it was often a comfort food—kind of their equivalent of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a fond food memory from childhood.
     In closing, I hope this isn’t taken as cultural snobbery versus Australians.  I realize that the U.S. eats some things considered odd by other countries.  And I certainly understand nostalgia for childhood treats.  I’m sure other countries might be amused and/or disgusted by say, funnel cake, or candy corn.  It’s all relative, is what I’m saying—I’m not criticizing their culture as a whole.
     I’ll return to Australian cuisine in later posts, about some of their exotic meats.

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