18 February 2017

We’re happy little Vegemites ... as bright as bright can be!

The company Fred Walker & Co. was best known for creating Vegemite, a breakfast product that went on to become an “Australian cultural icon”. I am normally a bit wary of that expression. But I know that as soon as the men came home from WW2 and rationing ended, my own break­fast every day was a soft boiled egg in an eggcup, a slice of bread with Vegemite and yellow cheese, and a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice.

So how did it all start? Justus Freiherr von Liebig (1803–1873) was a German chemist who rev­olutionised agricultural chemistry in Hesse. He also founded the Liebig Extract of Meat Co. that produced the world's first beef bouillon cube. von Liebig had discovered that brewer's yeast could be concentrated, bottled and eaten, a technique that led to the product that was later to become Marmite.

In 1902 the Marmite Food Extract Company was formed in Staffordshire with Marmite as its main product. The by-product yeast needed for the paste was supplied by a local brewery. By 1907 the product had become successful enough to build a second factory in London.

Marmite vs Vegemite

And why did Australians, possibly the most loyal ex-colonials in the entire British Empire, not eat Marmite for breakfast? It appears that Marmite HAD been the yeast spread of choice across Australia from Edwardian days. But supplies imported from Britain were imperilled in WW1 shipping accidents. Even once shipping became safe again from 1919 on, Marmite was hard hit by the changes in world trade. 

So it was not until 1923 that Fred Walker (1884-1935) hired the chemist Dr Cyril P. Callister to develop a yeast extract product specifically for Australian fam­il­ies. After months of laboratory tests in Melbourne, the yeast could be concent­rated, processed and refined, thus becoming a very rich source of Vitamin B. Vegemite was manufactured in a two ounce amber glass jar shaped like a lighthouse, capped with a seal to keep the contents fresh. Labelled “Pure Vegetable Extract”, Vegem­ite was first sold in 1924 and quickly competed well with the very similar Marmite from Britain.

Walker began a partnership with American businessman James Kraft  to manufacture processed cheese in 1925. By 1928 Marmite was outselling its Australian rival and Walker decided to change the name of his product to Parwill. The name had been invented so that a new advertising campaign could be mounted based upon the slogan 'If Marmite, Parwill!' The name Vegemite was quickly brought back!!

By 1930 Walker was chairman of Kraft Walker Cheese Co, a slightly separate company from Fred Walker & Co. He was good at keeping the best staff by providing workers with a social club, morning tea breaks, first aid & canteen facilities.

Being a by-product of beer manufacture, Vegemite might not have been the basis for a great advertising campaign. But that did not matter - it was the taste that made Vegemite so appealing! This yeast vegetable extract was recognised as one of the world's highest food sources of vitamin B.

When Fred Walker sadly died in 1935, the American Kraft Co. absorbed its Australian co-partner. That could have been the end of catering to Australian tastes, but Kraft Foods understood the significance of Vegemite to Australians.

My breakfast throughout the 1950s - soft boiled egg and Vegemite soldiers

Luckily for Kraft, Vegemite was officially endorsed by the British Medical Association as a rich source of B vitamins in 1939. It must have been – the company began advertising in the British Medical Journal!

Just as WW2 erupted in 1939, Vegemite was included in Australia’s army rations! Its marketing strategy put Vegemite in 90% of Australian homes in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, emphasising the value of the spread to children's health. Leftover brewer’s yeast with vitamins became Our Favourite Food Product.

We’re happy little Vegemites
As bright as bright can be.
We all enjoy our Vegemite
For breakfast, lunch and tea.
Our Mummies say 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!

This Vegemite ad  first appeared in 1954 on radio and is remembered by every Baby Boomer in the entire nation. Note that TV did not arrive in Australia until November 1956!

In the sophisticated C21st, Vegemite is still produced at Kraft Foods’ plant in Port Melbourne, creating and selling 22 million jars per year. Largely unchanged from Callister’s original recipe, Vegemite still far outsells Marmite. And I assume a small bottle of Vegemite is still carried in the suitcases of Australian travellers, whenever they go abroad.

New Zealanders also love Vegemite. Vegemite was made in New Zealand for 50 years (until 2006), and although New Zealanders eat less of it than Austr­al­ians, the spread is very popular. However many New Zeal­an­ders still prefer Marmite, made at the Sanitarium factory in Christchurch.

A fortnight ago, before I wrote this post, most of my grandchildren were together, behaving well and watching tv. I was delighted and said to them “you all look like Happy Little Vegemites”. How nostalgic is that?

**

Here is that iconic Australian song Land Down Under, sung by Men At Work (1981).

Do you come from a land down under?
Where women glow and men plunder?
Can't you hear, can't you hear the thunder?
You better run, you better take cover

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

The song went to #1 in Australia in December 1981, topped the New Zealand and Canadian charts in 1982 and reached #1 in the USA, UK and Ireland in 1983.












15 comments:

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I have tasted Vegemite once or twice, but never acquired the knack of eating it. If some traveler from Australia to Taiwan forgets his private stock, I have seen it for sale here in a number of places. Interesting about the corporate history with Kraft. In America, Kraft products (except Vegemite) are ubiquitous, even though in these days some people have progressed beyond processed cheese!
--Jim

Joseph said...

Jimmy Fallon tried Vegemite on The Tonight Show and gagged. He said it was definitely not for American tastes.

Andrew said...

I hope you haven't started a Vegemite war here. My advice if you haven't tried Vegemite and you want to, spread a very very small amount on buttered toast. Maybe you just have to be brought up on it.

I like the slogan "if Marmite, Parwill".

ABC Melbourne radio host, Red Symons, does not use the brand name but describes Vegemite thus; the salty yeasty black breakfast spread made from beer slops.

Deb said...

Spot on about the small bottle of Vegemite in the suitcase. When I backpacked around Europe, the Vegemite went with me from one youth hostel to the next.

bazza said...

In the UK Marmite is often cited as a "love it or hate it" product. I fall into the latter category! I have never tasted Vegimite and probably never will - I'll stick with the beer.
In yesterday's news the US company Kraft Heinz had a $143 billion (US) bid for Unilever rejected. It would have been the second biggest ever corporate takeover. Unilever owns the Marmite brand so Kraft want the full set! If Hellmans and Heinz ketchup are in the same hands Thousand Island Dressing could become the next big thing!
Incidentally, I noticed in the Vegimite ad there was a plummy English accent for the voice-over. Was that usual?
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s fabulous Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...

Parnassus

If Fred Walker had not gone into partnership with James Kraft, I think Kraft would never have been interested in this obscure foreign food product. But how about this for timing. In Jan 2017, the Australian dairy company announced it was buying Vegemite (and other products) from Kraft.

Hels said...

Joseph

OK I had a look at the Tonight Show footage. Both American men looked decidedly unhappy tasting the Vegemite, but they may have tasted too much in one lick. Vegemite needs to be spread on toast quite sparingly.

On the other hand, Vegemite might be a taste repulsive to Americans and always will be.

Hels said...

Andrew

Good point. There are many things we have to be brought up on. I watched Canadians pour lashings of maple syrup on top of eggs fried in oil, and felt like gagging :(

Hels said...

Deb

*sigh* that was a while back.

You reminded me of two things. A) Do 20 year olds still carry small bottles of Vegemite in their backpacks? And B) If an Australian is caught in Iceland or Peru without enough Vegemite today, they can simply order up more via eBay. Catastrophe averted.

Hels said...

bazza

Thank you. I did not know about the negotiations between Unilever and Kraft in the UK. But then I also did not know much about the negotiations between Bega Dairy Company and Kraft here. We will see what happens.

Re the accent in the Vegemite commercial, it was VERY BBCish, wasn't it? All ABC accents were back then, of course, but this was a commercial! Were they trying to appeal to the Marmite consumers in Australia?

peppylady (Dora) said...

None of these product I believe wasn't in the united states...But I would be Learie of eating anything from Victorian or Edwardian age...The wall paper then had lead in it...I could list quite a few poisons
Coffee is on

Hels said...

peppylady

yes indeed! I saw the BBC series called Hidden Killers. One episode was called "Hidden Killers of the Victorian Home i.e lethal products that lurked in every room of the Victorian home". The next did the same for the Edwardian Home.

CherryPie said...

Fascinating history, I knew nothing about it.

A few years ago in the workplace there was a bit of a byplay between those who liked marmite and those who liked vegemite. The interesting thing is that it was a vegetarian that was that was extolling the virtues of Vegemite.

I don't like the raw taste of either but I like them in sauces for stews :-)

Hels said...

CherryPie

both Vegemite and Marmite are vegan, kosher and halal certified. So peoples' preference rest solely on their parents' history with food or on personal taste. In my many decades on this planet, I have never tasted Marmite so next time I go to the supermarket, it will be the first thing I buy :) Just to be sure!

Hels said...

I loved the song Land Down Under, by Men At Work. I have added the chorus and one verse to the blog post. Listen to it on YouTube.