Food is so much more than nourishment. Our food choices, menu construction, taste preferences, cooking methods and eating patterns all create a rich narrative that defines who we are and where we have come from. Taste preferences learned over time, starting from childhood, create culinary and cultural boundaries. The expression “one man’s meat is another man’s poison” aptly describes this distinction and what is referred to as insider and outsider foods.
Vegemite, the thick black, salty yeast extract made from a by-product of beer brewing, that has become an Australian icon in just over ninety years, is seen as another man’s poison if you’re an outsider. Since the British Medical Journal endorsed Vegemite as a rich vitamin B source in 1939, generations of Australians have been inculcated with the vegemite philosophy through ritualist daily consumption.
Australian housewives embraced convenience products including toasters and vegemite and have been spreading morning toast and enriching soups, gravies and stews with it since the 1930’s. Our WWII Diggers left with it in their ration packs as a nutritional supplement and as a reminder of home. The baby boomers embraced the marketing song, “I’m a happy little vegemite” and can still sing it today. Even though Australia has become a multicultural society and adopted a global spectrum of foods we are still consuming it. Research by Paul Rozin and Michael Siegal has gone so far to say “the enjoyment of vegemite is linked to Australian birth and ancestry… and may be the best predictor of national identity of any food in the world, as only Australians like it”.
While other cultures have their own unique salty foods, this hasn’t provided them with a familiarity and predisposition to like vegemite. Reactions to it have evoked a range of responses from awful, yuck, ugly, and bitter, to being described as roach bait and Black Death.
But we Australians love our Vegemite, we adore our Vegemite and we travel with our Vegemite. We even use it to express our cultural identity. We have entertained 5,300 Australian embassy guests in Washington by serving mini Vegemite sandwiches and we express our mood by saying “I’m a happy little Vegemite”. Past prime ministers, John Howard, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard have referenced Vegemite as part of our national identity to evoke patriotism. Vegemite is embedded into our national identity, we are consuming 23 million jars a year and we are proud of it!