The other morning, as I was spreading Vegemite on my toast like scores* of my fellow Americans, I took a closer look at the label and made a happy discovery: This year marks the centennial (or centenary**) of Vegemite yeast extract, as much an Australian national symbol as koalas and kangaroos. It’s a milestone that will be cheered by many of us and strenuously ignored by others.
“Proudly made in Australia since 1923”
To call Vegemite—a thick black paste made from brewer’s yeast—controversial is to put it mildly, and “mild” is a word you can never use with Vegemite. I happen to love the stuff, because I love anything that combines salty and umami flavors, but here in North America I find myself in a lonely minority. And it’s not just North Americans: Vegemite is one of three foods that represent Australia in the Disgusting Food Museum in Malmö, Sweden. (The others are wichetty grubs, which are insects; and musk sticks, which are a kind of perfume-y candy and are unassociated with the current owner of Twitter and other businesses.)
My photo of a jar of Vegemite at the pop-up Disgusting Food Museum in Los Angeles, January 2019. The last sentence on the card reads: “In 2011, President Obama angered Australians by saying that he found vegemite [sic] to be ‘horrible.” When Australian prime minister Julia Gillard described the product, Obama said, “So, it's like a quasi-vegetable by-product paste that you smear on your toast for breakfast – sounds good, doesn’t it?” Yes, Mr. Obama, it sounds good. And it’s good for you, too.
A little background to whet your appetite:
Before there was Vegemite there was Marmite, a similar brewer’s-yeast spread that was invented in Germany in the late 19th century and commercialized in the UK in the early 20th. The “Marmite” brand name, pronounced MAR-might, is derived from marmite, pronounced mar-MEET, a French word for an earthenware pot; Marmite was sold in such pots until 1920, when the company switched to glass, keeping the image of a marmite on the label. (My thanks to the online Marmite Museum for this history. For more on the etymology of marmite, see John Kelly’s 2016 blog post. I’ll add only that Marmite has an excellent, see-if-we-care slogan: “Love It or Hate It.”)
Marmite became popular in Australia and New Zealand as well as in Britain, but World War I restrictions made it hard to import. In 1922 the Melbourne-based Fred Walker Company, which would later become Kraft Foods, hired a chemist to develop the local version—same brewer’s-yeast basis, but darker, thicker, and more pungent, thanks to a proprietary blend of spices and vegetables. What to name the new spread? The Fred Walker Company did what many companies do, with uncharacteristically successful results:
A national competition was launched, offering an attractive 50 pound prize pool for finalists. Unfortunately, the name of the winning contestant was not recorded, but it was Fred Walker’s daughter who chose the winning name – VEGEMITE – out of hundreds of entries.
What’s interesting to us name nerds is the construction of “Vegemite”: The -mite from “Marmite,” which previously had no independent meaning, was transformed into what the linguist Arnold Zwicky has dubbed a libfix: an affix “liberated” from its original source, like the cran- in “Cranapple,” the -dar in “gaydar,” or the -wich in “Manwich.” Now the combining form -mite signified “brewer’s yeast spread.” Competing products with -mite names followed, including Promite and OzEmite (that’s Oz as in Australia). Comparing the various -mites, one Quora commenter put it this way: “Vegemite is the hero, Promite is the Sidekick, but Marmite is the wannabe superhero, but falls down a cliff when trying to fly.”
The Vegemite brand has taken the -mite libfix a step further, transforming it into the adjective “Mitey” and, um, affixing it to all sorts of merch, including “Mitey Dog” products and beach accessories.
Elsewhere in merch-land, the Royal Australian Mint is celebrating “a hundred MITEY years” with Vegemite Centenary coins (limit five sets per person).
“Tastes Like 100 Years of Happy Little Vegemites” riffs on both an official Vegemite slogan—“Tastes Like Australia”—and a nearly 70-year-old ad campaign song, “Happy Little Vegemites.”
What about that “Happy Little Vegemites” song? It was created for Australian radio in 1954 by the J. Walter Thompson Australia agency and later turned into a TV ad featuring “a troupe of precocious pantomime kids dressed in marching uniforms and performing a choreographed routine while singing the song, while a giant jar of Vegemite loomed in the background,” according to the Australian Food Timeline website. (The -mite of Vegemite here could mean “a little kid” or even be the Aussie pronunciation of mate.) “The jingle continued to be used into the 1960s, but its simplicity and naivety fell out of favour. It was only in the 1980s that the nostalgia value of the song was realised and it was revived. The retro feel then became a plus.” What’s more, “happy little Vegemites” entered the language “as a semi-ironic way to describe people who are satisfied with a situation.”
We’re happy little Vegemites, as bright as bright can be,
We all enjoy our Vegemite for breakfast, lunch and tea,
Our mummy says 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!
The food timeline adds:
It seems there is a legitimate claim that people who consume Australia’s national spread are indeed ‘happy little Vegemites.’ Research published in mid-2017 found that those who eat Vegemite and other yeast-based spreads report they are less anxious and stressed than people who don’t eat them
We are, we are!
Many North Americans first learned about Vegemite not from direct experience but through the 1980 Men At Work song “Down Under,” one of whose lines is “He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich.” More recently, the American singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer revived “Happy Little Vegemites” on her 2011 album Amanda Palmer Goes Down Under. (Actually, she plays the piano while what sounds like the entire audience at the Sydney Opera House sings the song.)
But my favorite Vegemite song—even though I disagree fervently with its sentiment—is Palmer’s original composition “Vegemite (The Black Death),” also from her Down Under album, also performed live in Sydney.
Vegemite. It tastes like sadness
It tastes like batteries. It tastes like asses
I cannot hold a man so close who spreads this cancer on his toast
It is the Vegemite, my darling, or it’s me
Happy 100th birthday, Vegemite!
Bonus link: More Australiana from me.
* Probably more like a score, as in twenty.
** Americans mostly say centennial, but when obliged to say centenary we pronounce it sen-TEN-ery; the British (and Australian?) preference is for centenary, which they pronounce sen-TEEN-ary. For more on this divide, see Lynne Murphy’s 2010 blog post.