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The meaning of Marmite and Vegemite
Nationalism, acquired tastes, and spreadable yeast extract
Hello, Snackers. It’s salty, it’s yeasty, it just might start an argument.
Apologies: Sorry this post is so late. I have a day job and young kids and the world’s on fire, so…you know. Sometimes the newsletter takes a minute.
Recommendation: My friend and fellow Minneapolitan James Norton has a new newsletter about cookbooks (some old, some new), in which he “looks under their hoods with a gimlet eye.” Go read The Cookbook Test!
The list of foods linked to specific places, and their sense of identity, is endless.
Pad thai in Thailand, baguettes in France, maple syrup in Québec, cheese in Wisconsin … you can probably think of a dozen more off the top of your head. (By the way, all those links go to fascinating stories you should read after you’re done here.)
In most cases, the defining local foods are spoken of with pride, and when area residents offer a sample to outsiders, it comes with a combination of hype and hopefulness: “Try this, you’ll love it.” They’re selling both a delicious flavor and, just as important, a story—a tale of generations and identity and hours upon hours in the kitchen, the fields, the forests, and/or creaky boats in a raging sea.
There are also, of course, various regional delicacies that are less easy on the palate, and which locals offer as a dare to outsiders: “Try this, it’ll make you gag.” Even these foods, though, go down a bit easier when you understand that they, too, come with deep-seated pride and centuries of history, like Swedish surströmming (fermented herring) and Icelandic kæstur hákarl (fermented shark). The taste might not be for everyone—and local residents know it—but the mythology offers its own sense of hospitality. They're dare foods, but they're also endearing.
We want none of that today.
We have gathered here to…recognize? Discuss? Celebrate??…the dare foods that have reached National Icon status despite being corporate products with no homespun backstory of great-grandma toiling in the kitchen.
Why and how would such a food come to define a place or a culture at all?
This is the story of Vegemite and Marmite, two sibling spreads that have come to represent their respective homelands, despite—or perhaps because of—the polarized reactions they elicit.
There's plenty of common ground between Vegemite and Marmite, but don’t mistake one for the other.
Both spreads are made with yeast extract—traditionally brewer’s yeast left over from the beer-making process—and high in B vitamins; the packaging also looks similar, with yellow as the dominant color (to offset the brown of the yeasty concoction within) and white text on a red background. (There’s also Bovril, another salty, umami-y British product spread on toast, but that’s made with meat extract and is a whole different thing.)
Here are some bullet points on the key differences:
First made in 1902
Thin, sticky, brown
Yeasty flavor but not, like, completely overwhelming for most people
A bit sweet
First made in 1923
Thick, pasty, black
Yeasty but also with some vegetable flavors, because it also has onion and celery extract
Savory and intense; might knock your socks off
In both cases, we’re talking about an intense, umami-bomb of flavor, something that, if you haven’t grown up eating it, will be jarring. It can make for great slapstick comedy, as always seems to be the case when Brits or Aussies challenge gullible Americans (or anyone … but especially Americans) to have a taste.
Search YouTube for either product and nearly all of the top results are things like this:
If you prefer something ostensibly more highbrow, here’s a video of American diplomats in Australia trying Vegemite. Cue the laugh track!
Read the comments on any of those videos and you’ll see plenty of LOLs but also more than a few people chiming in with sincere advice: Don’t overdo it, a little bit goes a long way!
This is, of course, excellent guidance for any food with a strong flavor. It’s also what the brands themselves have advised since they first debuted. Here, for example, is an ad I found from 1925:
Let’s zoom in …
If a company is telling you that “a very, very little” of its product is all you need, “little more than a speck here and there,” perhaps it’s best to heed that advice.
The ad underscores the fact that these spreads have always had a reputation as strong and polarizing flavors. (The issue here is not that the collective appreciation of these tastes has changed, in the same way that, for example, modern Americans are more squeamish about organ meat than their ancestors were 100 years ago.) But you can see the balancing act that the brand is trying to pull off here: the taste is strong but not extreme, a gentle giant of flavors offering soothing sustenance and B vitamins.
It was the vitamins that first made Marmite a big deal in Great Britain, though we must acknowledge the Continental contributions to the cause.
The concept of the product—using spent brewer’s yeast to make a new food—came from a German scientist named Justus von Liebig, in the mid-1800s, and when a British company started making the stuff commercially, in 1902, it looked east for the brand name. The French word “marmite” refers to an earthenware pot, which also gives the packaging its famous rounded shape—evidently the people in charge of selling this new product thought it could benefit from a bit of culinary pedigree.
In 1912, scientist figured out that Marmite had all those B vitamins and that they were useful for fighting off anemia. It was, as The Economist has noted, “a health food,” one that was provided to British troops fighting in the trenches in World War I.
Quick note here. Every account I’ve read draws a straight, strong connection between the war effort and the popularization of Marmite in the years afterward. As the story goes, soldiers took a liking to the stuff, kept eating it when they returned home, and zoom went the sales. The details of this, though, are sparse, and I have my doubts. Without solid evidence, it seems unlikely that thousands of soldiers were so enamored with Marmite, which didn’t have a cultural footprint before this, that they got home and went, “Hey, so there’s this yeast spread that’s imprinted in my mind as the ration we were eating right before we got gassed in Ypres … and I’m really craving some of that on toast.”
So let’s acknowledge that this is the accepted story, but let’s also put a large asterisk next to it. It seems more likely, in my semi-informed opinion, that Marmite took off primarily because it was marketed as a vitamin supplement for the broader populace, a fact that became an even bigger selling point in the 1920s, when Lucy Mills discovered that it was high in folic acid, which is especially beneficial for pregnant women.
As Marmite became more popular in Great Britain, the brand spread across the empire long reach, particularly Australia. But by the early 1920s, that Antipodean land was starting to come into its own, culture-wise, and the search for a separate identity including creating a new yeast spread.
As Kay Richardson detailed in Gastronomica back in 2006:
By 1922 Australians seemed ready to pry a few fingers away from the guiding British hand and engage in some healthy competition. To this end, cheese entrepreneur Fred Walker hired the chemist Cyril P. Callister to develop a yeast spread and capture local market demand for the English spread Marmite. A cheap, abundant supply of yeast was available from Carlton & United Breweries, who had earlier failed to impress the public with a yeast spread called Cubex. Brewers yeast is a good source of vitamin B, but both live and inactivated yeast lack palatability (in Aussie lingo that would mean it tastes like crap).
Callister worked hard to develop the process and recipe for his new product, so it would taste slightly less crappy. Still, it was a struggle for Vegemite to overcome the existing market dominance of Marmite, and the upstart brand took some years to find its footing.
In the mid-1930s, Richardson says, Vegemite finally took off thanks to a few overlapping factors. One was clever marketing, which included bundling coupons for Vegemite with cheddar cheese made by the same company—this was, after all, the Depression, and shoppers welcomed any way to stretch the budget. Vegemite containers were also solid glass and could be reused for other purposes: “an eggcup, a saltcellar, or even a mustard pot.”
But Richardson highlights other factors as being even more important:
The popularity of Vegemite owes much to a concatenation of the toaster, the British Medical Association, and World War II. During the 1930s Australian housewives were quick to adopt new technologies like washing machines and vacuum cleaners, which afforded them more time to make toast in their new toasters and spread it with nutritious Vegemite. The British Medical Association officially endorsed Vegemite as a rich source of vitamin B; as infant welfare expert Sister McDonald claimed in the highly respected Women’s Weekly, “Vegemite is most essential.” When the Australian “diggers” left home with Vegemite in their packs to fight in World War II, the spread became permanently associated with the expression of heartfelt national fervor. As part of the national war effort, Australians left behind were asked to tolerate the subsequently limited supply.
In Britain, Marmite got its own wartime bump as a product distributed to prisoners of war—a taste of home and a much-needed nutritional boost. I haven’t found research linking the rise of toasters in the UK to the success of Marmite, but it seems safe to assume that this new technology played a similar role as in Australia.
So in the postwar years, this is where things stood: Vegemite and Marmite were beloved as healthful convenience foods that had helped the war effort. The intensity of the flavor, and its reputation as a polarizing, acquired taste, was not part of the broader conversation.
Please enjoy the grimace on that ribbon-bedecked man and the intense gazes of the kids watching him. Here’s the official Getty caption:
Governor of NSW Rear Admiral Peter Sinclair lunches on a vegemite sandwich (which he does not like) with Kindergarten pupils in the playground of Balgowlah Heights Public School. March 17, 1991.
By this point, in the early 1990s, the people in charge of marketing Vegemite and Marmite had realized that they needed to move their brand identities beyond “good for your kids and soldiers on the front lines.” Pitching something as medicinal means that you’re largely not promoting it as enjoyable.
Generations of kids had acquired a taste for yeast spreads, because they’d been eating them since a young age—which is well-known as the key to enjoying foods with a strong flavor—but the products weren’t as beloved as they once were.
Vegemite and Marmite each started to take new approaches to their marketing, but here the brands diverged, one settling on a winking jadedness and the other opting for wisecracking nationalism.
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By the mid-1990s, the brand was failing. It fell to BMP DDP, a catchily named advertising agency, to make Marmite cool. Andy McLeod and Richard Flintham, the young creative duo tasked with the brief, had a tough job: consumers thought that Marmite smelt “disgusting” and looked “like a brown stain on toast”, according to research the agency did.
McLeod recalls the moment they cracked the problem. “I remember sitting in my office looking at the brief and saying to Richard, ‘I fucking hate Marmite.’ And he said ‘Oh, I love it.’ And we both just looked at each other.”
The “Hate/Mate” campaign launched in 1996 with two 30-second ads designed to bookend advert breaks, set to the song “Low Rider” by War.
In the first of the paired ads, both of which you can find on YouTube, various people show a deep, abiding, at times lustful appreciation for Marmite. The second ad is all gagging and pushing away—people rejecting the foul spread.
The ads offer a new view of Marmite: not just a food but a meme. In this telling, it’s a cult product that just happens to be mass-produced, with a strong appeal to the in-group of fans but also, importantly, a gentle nod to the detractors. The ads create a sense of community regardless of your feelings for the product: if you love it or if you hate it, there are lots of people just like you.
According to The Economist, this approach worked brilliantly:
The campaign’s irony and self-awareness struck a chord with members of Generation X, who had become cynical about traditional marketing strategies. Sales to “pre-family households” – the younger adults Marmite wanted to attract – increased by 50% between 1995 and 2001.
The success of the campaign was such that it fixed Marmite in the collective consciousness not just as a polarizing thing unto itself but as a metaphor for things, or a person, that generate opposing opinions—they are “like Marmite.”
Vegemite ads of the 1990s were still fixated on the longstanding approach of healthfulness, all catchy jingles and adorable kids flexing their drinking-straw muscles. But more recent years, the brand has leaned into a new approach, as something quintessentially Australian. This for example, ran during the 2012 Olympics in London.
Or here’s one that just leans into the national stereotypes:
While they take different approaches, the modern ads for Vegemite and Marmite both have the same underlying messages: this isn’t for everyone. There’s a chip-on-our-shoulder sensibility to it but also enough of a wink to put everyone at ease: “We are who we are and we won’t apologize, but we also know we’re kinda ridiculous.”
I’ve been struggling with how to phrase this—and maybe someone else has said it more eloquently, though I haven’t found that essay yet—but I think it matters, a lot, that these products are acquired tastes with links to specific places but without generations of history behind them.
The very lack of story reduces the stakes and allows the products to be both beloved and a source of humor at the same time. In most cases around the world, when outsiders find a specific food “bizarre” or “gross” or overly exotic, its a load-bearing judgment with inescapable undertones of racism or colonialism or a lack of respect for history and hardship. Vegemite and Marmite, as corporate goods of fairly recent origin—and, critically, as favorites of a largely white consumer base—don’t carry the same cultural weight.
Because of all this, it’s both easy and fun to argue about Vegemite and Marmite. It’s fun to make videos and to try a bite and spit it out (or, perhaps, find that you love it). The spreads are almost the perfect food for social media: polarizing and linked to a certain sense of cultural pride but ultimately incredibly low-stakes. And at a time when food is part of the exhausting, nauseating culture wars of our political landscape there’s something refreshing about products that embrace the very divisiveness of their flavors and take a jovial, welcoming approach the narcissism of small differences. All things considered, these strong flavors offer a subtle point of disagreement.
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