Probably like most Americans, the first I ever heard of Vegemite was in 1983, a throw-away line in “Down Under” by Men at Work:
Buying bread from a man in Brussels
He was six-foot-four and full of muscles
I said, “Do you speak-a my language?”
He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich
For a while, I thought he said, “And gave me a bite of my sandwich,” which, I admit, does not make sense, but this is rock music, not the New York Review of Books. And then I wondered whether it was just a made up word.
But it’s real. And it’s a food, although views differ on how edible it is.
So what is it? Vegemite is an Australian brewers yeast extract, made from stuff that would otherwise be thrown out after beer making. It seems not to have an American counterpart.
But there is a British counterpart—Marmite—and intense rivalry between their respective adherents. (If you’ve ever gotten either Marmite or Vegemite on your fingers, you’ll know that “adherent” is a most apt term.)
It sounds biblical: “Verily, the Marmites did march into the valley of the Vegemites and did smite them, and there was lamentation among the muffins, and the beans on toast trembled and were sore afraid.”
We have both in our kitchen at the moment. I like them both (but bear in mind that I also like Spam). Marmite has a richer color; Vegemite is easier to spread. I smear the stuff on toast and English muffins. They have a kind of beefy taste, even though neither has ever been near a cow or any other animal.
But both of them are definitely salty. I mean Dead Sea salty, melt the ice on the sidewalk salty, use it to drive away garden slugs salty. But while the sodium content of either would redline your sphygmo-manometer were you to trowel it on like cream cheese, it’s more likely you’d spread it thin, and thus the typical percentages of RDA aren’t that alarming (8 percent for Marmite; 8.3 for Vegemite). Okay, they’re a little alarming.
Vegemite tried to market a low salt version, “My First Vegemite,” intended primarily for children. But it was received tepidly. Seems people like their Vegemite salty. (See also alcohol-free beer.)
The two spreads do have redeeming nutritional qualities, as both are rich in B-vitamins. And they have umami, the loosely defined savory quality associated with meat and soy sauce. It’s a way to give a meaty quality to a vegetarian dish, or to punch up the beefy flavor in a stew. And Nigella Lawson tells us how to make Marmite spaghetti. Um, you go ahead, I’ll wait here for you.
I take it from talking to people from the “mite” countries that whether you fall into the Vege- or Mar- camp is established in childhood. Like Minnesotans with Farmalls vs. John Deeres, you were either a Marmite family or a Vegemite family.
I ran into a member of the latter a few months ago at the local Safeway, where, to clear inventory to make room for an expanded pharmacy, they had marked down a lot of ethnic foods.
As she and I sorted through the shelves of bargain salsas and gefilte fish, I said I wished that Vegemite were easier to find in the USA. I acknowledged that Marmite could be found at many area stores.
“Marmite!” she said, mock-shivering. “That’s the Devil’s paste!”