Simply off Australia’s largest container port lies a sickle-shaped neighborhood with a scent so distinctive that passing taxi drivers will typically roll down their home windows for a whiff of the wealthy and unmistakably beery aroma.
That scent, formally acknowledged by the Metropolis of Melbourne final yr for its “intangible cultural heritage,” emanates from a nondescript, brick manufacturing facility on a nook lot on this industrial district, often called Port Melbourne. Each vessel of Vegemite, the unfold beloved in Australia and never a lot outdoors it, has for the previous 80 years begun its journey right here.
Glinting glass jars, every crammed with a swirl of semi-molten Vegemite, quiver as they clink alongside steel rollers on the meeting line earlier than being bunched into squadrons of 12 and despatched out into the world.
Australians hanker for Vegemite. It’s in over 90 p.c of the nation’s properties, in response to Bega Group, the corporate that makes it. Many, if not most, cafes have a vat of their kitchens, and dinky jars of lower than one ounce dot airport lounges throughout the nation.
The model celebrated its one centesimal birthday this yr, prompting ridiculous merchandise (tremendous silver replicas of Vegemite jars that offered out in 4 hours) and an abundance of questionable collaborations (Vegemite oats, Vegemite roast hen, Vegemite Taco Bell). However it’s removed from clear what Vegemite, in all its tarry glory, truly is.
What does the “concentrated yeast extract” on the label imply?
“I’m unsure that that essentially issues,” Matt Grey, the advertising supervisor at Bega, stated a bit guardedly. “I don’t suppose that anybody thinks that deeply about it.”
When pushed, Vegemite officers provide few clues. It’s made from leftover yeast from native breweries and bakeries; requires a multiweek fermentation course of; includes salt, and possibly onions and celery; and is a superb supply of nutritional vitamins. (Most individuals eat it on toast in portions far lower than the standard slather of peanut butter on bread.) The method nearly definitely can’t be replicated in a house kitchen.
“It’s prime secret,” Robert Carman, the manufacturing facility supervisor, who has labored on the plant for 51 years, stated of the recipe.
5 days per week, in a room adorned with images of toast, Mr. Carman and a rotating crew of tasters pattern every batch. They search for firmness, “squeezability” and a taste that hits exactly the fitting notes of saltiness and bitterness.
The remainder of the world appears on with one thing approaching wry bemusement. In a journal article in 2003, the psychologists Paul Rozin and Michael Siegal discovered that Vegemite was “a candidate for probably the most culturally particular meals.” Ben Shewry, the celebrated chef behind the Melbourne restaurant Attica, compares having fun with Vegemite to skateboarding.
“It’s important to have achieved it as a toddler,” stated Mr. Shewry, who’s initially from New Zealand. “It’s too painful to be taught it as an grownup.”
Vegemite evokes visceral reactions. Greater than a decade in the past, President Barack Obama threw diplomatic norms apart, reducing off Julia Gillard, then the Australian prime minister, to proclaim: “It’s horrible.”
But for a lot of immigrants — whether or not from Colombia, Nepal or Samoa — you can’t grow to be Australian with out falling for the nationwide unfold.
In 2003, Guido Melo, 47, moved to Melbourne from Brazil along with his former accomplice. He rapidly set to assimilating, immersing himself in Australian sports activities and growing a style for Vegemite, cheese and prosciutto sandwiches. “I needed to be a part of it so badly,” he stated of Australian life.
As a toddler in suburban Sydney, Hetty Lui McKinnon, a Chinese language Australian chef, ate only a few Western meals. The one exception, she stated, was “very robust” Vegemite sandwiches.
“It positively made me really feel extra Australian as a result of I used to be consuming what all people else was consuming,” she stated. “My mum didn’t actually know the way to make a correct Vegemite sandwich, so the ratio of Vegemite to butter was at all times a bit of off.”
Ms. McKinnon, now based mostly in Brooklyn, retains solely two Australian meals in her pantry: tinned ardour fruit pulp — and a jar of Vegemite. Her e-book “To Asia With Love” suggests coating egg noodles with an expensive and soporific emulsion of melted butter, miso paste and Vegemite. (Ms. McKinnon contributes recipes to The New York Instances.)
Australians didn’t at all times have a style for Vegemite. Launched in 1923 as a competitor to Marmite, a British yeast unfold, it was not till 1937 that gross sales started to select up. A part of the attraction was ads selling the unfold as a well being meals for infants. By World Battle II, it had grow to be so well-liked that it accompanied Australian troops abroad, and there have been shortages at dwelling.
“Sending it to struggle actually solidified its place within the nationwide weight-reduction plan,” stated Jamie Callister, the writer of a e-book about Vegemite’s historical past and the grandson of Cyril Callister, the meals chemist who invented it.
However for many of its historical past, regardless of being made and principally offered in Australia, Vegemite belonged to Kraft, the American meals firm. It returned to Australian fingers when Bega, a dairy firm, purchased it in 2017.
Kraft made one try and promote it to American customers, within the late Sixties. A marketing campaign by the advert company J. Walter Thompson eschewed the give attention to vitality that had labored at dwelling in favor of 1 that includes Australian sports activities stars.
“None of those celebrities would have been identified or have had any resonance within the States,” stated Emily Contois, a media research professor on the College of Tulsa.
Curiosity in Vegemite in the USA did rise organically within the early Eighties, with the recognition of the Males At Work track “Down Beneath” (lyric: “He simply smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich”). For the primary time, Individuals rushed to attempt it, with Vegemite-eating contests and events. They principally didn’t like what they discovered.
“They actually don’t get it,” stated Stephanie Alexander, a doyenne of Australian meals writing.
Although often served on toast, Vegemite is available in many types in eating places and cafes throughout Melbourne. It’s baked into tacky, savory “scrolls” or, at one eatery, added to white chocolate ice cream, the place its slight chemical tang lingers on style buds seemingly for hours.
It even finds its method into tremendous eating. Mr. Shewry, the chef, makes his personal trademark-protected dupe, “Benmite”: a recent, barely powdery product of unspecified vegetal origin that has been smeared onto steamed rolls, combined with butter and squeezed into “tacky puffs,” or served in a riff on avocado on toast.
For Mr. Shewry, Vegemite is as essential a characteristic of Australian culinary heritage as many Indigenous substances.
“We’ve this tendency to really feel ‘cultural cringe’ from actually profitable issues, whether or not that be Vegemite or a Driza-Bone jacket,” he stated, referring to the waterproof overcoats made in Australia for nearly a century. “However that factor proper there — that’s cool. That’s truly an actual a part of our tradition, and it’s essential and invaluable.”
Greater than 90 p.c of the roughly 7,500 tons (20 million or so tubs, tubes and jars) of Vegemite made annually is purchased in Australia, in response to Bega. However the product’s world profile far outstrips its worldwide gross sales, thanks partially to common movie star endorsements (or typically censures).
Hugh Jackman introduced it onto late-night tv; Margot Robbie described the scrape of Vegemite on toast because the sound of her childhood; Tom Hanks revolted a nation (and inadvertently raised consciousness about coronavirus-induced anosmia, an abrupt lack of scent) by lathering it on with abandon. Vegemite’s high-profile detractors embody the singers Jason Derulo, an American, and Niall Horan, an Irishman who was as soon as a part of the boy band One Path, who each made bitter faces after being fed it on stay tv.
All this consideration makes Mr. Callister, the Vegemite scion and historian, optimistic.
“Trying to the subsequent 100 years,” he stated, “I nonetheless suppose Vegemite might go world.”