One of the Great Mysteries
Marmite or Vegemite, which came first, the chicken or the egg.
In New Zealand I grew up with Marmite, but across the ditch (Tasman Sea) Vegemite reigned supreme. To me Vegemite tasted funny.
The slow spread of Vegemite
Vegemite started as a wartime substitute for Marmite, but it’s now as symbolic of Australia as Sydney Harbour Bridge and the koala. How did this salty spread become so popular?
What’s the link between German U-boats, the beer industry, processed cheese and the Men At Work’s 1983 hit, Down Under?
The answer is, they all played a part in turning Vegemite from a humble yeast spread into an Australian icon. Stop any Aussie on any street, anywhere in the world, and they will have a view on Vegemite – for, or against.
Now, on the eve of its 90th birthday, the first official history has just been published. The Man Who Invented Vegemite is written by Jamie Callister, grandson of the man who created it.
“My grandfather Cyril created something that all Australians associate with their childhood. It never leaves you,” he says.
The story really begins in the late 19th Century, when an edible by-product was first extracted from the yeast used by brewers to make beer. In 1902, Britain’s Marmite Extract Food Company came into being, taking its name from the French word “marmite”, for large pot.
Marmite was sent around the world, including to Australia. But during World War I, those exports were badly interrupted by German U-boats attacking merchant ships.
“Supplies of Marmite all but dried up, leaving Australians desperate for the spread that many had come to love,” says Callister. “They needed to find an alternative.”
That’s where Cyril Callister comes in.
Born in 1893 in rural Victoria, he was a clever child who went to college and became a chemist. He lived an exciting, unorthodox, life, travelling the world and ending up as a scientist at a munitions factory in Scotland.
After an explosion at the factory, Callister returned to Australia, where he met an entrepreneur called Fred Walker, who was trying to develop a Marmite substitute.
Walker had already seen one local brewer try to come up with its own version of Marmite, called Cubex. But this thick, bitter sludge was a culinary and financial disaster.
Walker put Callister on the case in 1923, and by the end of the year, the pair were confident they had a finished product. Walker decided to launch a competition so the public could name it and claim a £50 prize. Hundreds entered and it was Walker’s daughter Sheila who pulled the word Vegemite out of a hat.
Like the product itself, the name stuck. But sales were sluggish.
Walker had heard about an ingenious Canadian called James Kraft, who had perfected what came to be known as processed cheese. It was a sensation, as it allowed people who couldn’t afford fridges to store cheese for much longer periods.
In 1924, Walker met Kraft in Chicago. The two men got on well and Walker persuaded Kraft to grant him rights to sell his cheeses in Australia.
In a stroke of marketing genius, he offered Vegemite alongside the cheese. By the mid 1930s, Vegemite was, if not quite a runaway success, certainly a moderately well-established family staple. But it took a professor of human physiology to transform its fortunes.