Vegemite

Black and White illustration featuring an IndestructibleFood: Vegemite. Allso pictured is flying toast.

“A Tale of Two ‘Mites”

In our last chapter, we talked a bit about how British troops were eating Marmite in the trenches during WWI, but you know who WASN’T enjoying Marmite during WWI? Australians. The War disrupted the supply chain of British goods, and the whole nation was left bereft of yeast-spread. It was a grave emergency, and something had to be done. 

Canned good purveyor Fred Walker stepped up, asking chemist Cyril Callister to make a spread from spent brewer’s yeast. It was certainly meant to take the place of Marmite during the supply chain disruption, but it wasn’t a straight knock-off. Cyril had integrity, and he was determined to create something distinct. First, the texture of his product was different. Instead of being syrupy, Vegemite had a pasty/creamy consistency. The flavor was also unique. Although rich in umami and salty, Vegemite was even more intense than Marmite and had a bitter note that was missing in its predecessor. The product seemed promising.

In 1923, Vegemite hit the shelves. Australia had finally taken its place as a player in the international yeast-spread market! Now they just had to convince people to buy it. The first ad campaign focused on the product’s benefits for children (Vegemite had the same rich B-Vitamin profile as Marmite.) People were not psyched. They loved Marmite. This was not Marmite. As the supply chain opened back up, and Marmite became available in Australia again, people flocked back to it.

The lesson that we learn here is that the health of children was not a good enough reason for people to abandon a much-loved product for an alternate version. Especially if children were just as healthy eating the original. So Vegemite tried something different: a name change. Vegemite became…Parwill. If you think that was a bad idea, listen to this: The new tagline was “If Marmite, Parwill.” Get it? No? Right, no one really did, because it was a belabored and clumsy attempt to say that Vegemite, excuse me, Parwill, was better than Marmite. Literally no one was convinced, and soon, Parwill was Vegemite again. 

At this point, you’d be forgiven for asking how in the world Vegemite overcame early resistance to become the cultural phenomenon it is today. What caused Australians to forsake Marmite? The answer, surprisingly, is processed cheese.

In 1925, Fred Walker had started a new venture, the Kraft Walker Cheese Company. (Yes, THAT Kraft cheese!) After buying rights to James L. Kraft’s processed cheese patent, Fred Walker assigned our old chemist pal and Vegemite inventor Cyril to figure out an Australian arm of Kraft cheese production. He did. It was a big success. 

So when Vegemite failed to take off, Fred Walker did the only logical thing: He used his successful product to save his struggling one. Every Australian Kraft cheese purchase came with a coupon for free Vegemite. Even folks who had been resistant were willing to try Vegemite for FREE, especially when it was presented in conjunction with something as cool as processed cheese. Sales began to pick up speed, and by the time Australian troops joined the fight in World War II, they were carrying rations of Vegemite. After the war, they kept buying it. It was at this point that Vegemite finally surpassed Marmite as the most popular yeast-spread in Australia. 

The spread’s success never faltered. Vegemite is now a beloved symbol of Australia. It’s present in 90% of Australian homes. Fans eat it on toast, sure, but they don’t stop there. You’ll find recipes for cheese scrolls, spaghetti, beef pies, gravies, and even brownies. It has woven itself seamlessly through cuisine and culture. It is a product to be proud of.

I’ll leave you with a few entrepreneurial lessons from our friend Fred Walker: 1) Don’t be ashamed to make a new version of a beloved product. A new take on an old favorite can be a hit…eventually! 2) Hire experts. Chemist Cyril Callister figured out the recipe for Vegemite AND the best way to produce Kraft cheese in Australia. Whatever he was paid, it was a deal. 3) If people don’t like your product, try every scheme to change their minds. Name changes! Fancy jars! Medical endorsements! Catchy jingles! Do whatever you need to do, just don’t give up. 4) When nothing works, a free coupon can really make a difference. (When I worked in advertising, I had a boss that would always shoot down ideas by saying “It’s a coupon.” He meant that we had come up with a fancy way to give people a product for free or cheap, which was obviously not creative or interesting. I wish I would have known the story of Vegemite then, because I might have told him to chill about coupons. Sometimes a coupon can turn a struggling product into a national treasure. It doesn’t always have to be “clever” to work.)

A postscript from the author: 

Researching these articles, I’ve become increasingly curious about the lack of small-batch yeast-spread products produced by local breweries. You have spent brewer’s yeast! If y’all made artisanal Marmite/Vegemite would they not be a sensation? I must know someone who’s willing to take this on. Anyway, if you do, write to me, and I’ll illustrate your product for free….to use on your promotional coupons.

Marmite

Black and white illustration of an Indestructible Food: Marmite.

“A Tale of Two ‘Mites…”

I saw a jar of Marmite at the grocery store, and I was like, “MARMITE! I should look into that!” Then I began to fear the hate mail that would surely follow from Vegemite fans. I decided that the obvious solution was to feature these yeasty buddies in a two-part post, and we’d all be better for it. Buckle up, it’s going to be an exciting ride. 

Part One: Marmite

Marmite, for those of you who don’t know, is a dark, sticky goo made from yeast. It’s generally spread on buttered toast. One reviewer said that “It tastes like salty beefy fermented soy sauce.” So…basically an umami-rich salt spread? Amazing! Other reviewers said it was “fishy” and “doesn’t taste like food,” which is a bit less encouraging. Love it or hate it (that’s the slogan, by the way) Marmite is important to British cuisine…but how’d that happen? 

Justus von Liebig is the man who made Marmite possible. He’s widely considered to be a principal founder of organic chemistry, but he was also wild for nutrition. He developed a healthy baby formula, a meat tea to nourish the poor, and most importantly for this story, he found out that you could concentrate brewer’s yeast, bottle it, and eat it.

A few years after his breakthrough, an international team of enthusiastic fellows got the idea over the finish line. Frederick Wissler, George Huth, and Alexander Vale, found that they could take spent brewer’s yeast from the beer-making process and create a rich, flavorful spread. It was recycling! It was inventive! It was a symbiotic sensation! In 1902, the first Marmite factory opened, sourcing their yeast from the nearby Bass brewery. The spread caught on quickly (probably because it added a lot of flavor to food cheaply) but an even bigger selling point was on the horizon: vitamins! 

By 1912, there were several discoveries involving micronutrients, and the general consensus was that human beings needed some small amount of these to maintain their health. Scientist Casimir Funk (which is an amazing DJ name) called them “vitamines.” And you know what marmite had an awful lot of? You guessed it. Vitamins. B Vitamins, to be exact. Now Marmite could be sold not just for flavor, but also for health. It could be used to treat certain kinds of anemia and malnutrition! Take that, jelly!

In 1914, Great Britain began fighting in World War I, which meant that many British troops were standing around in stinking trenches full of water under heavy bombardment. The circumstances were horrific. To help with morale and to stave off nutritional deficits, Marmite was included in rations for the soldiers. I’ll say here that our brains process emotion pretty close to where they process taste and smell, so memory and food go hand in hand. Giving soldiers something to eat that they loved at home was a very good idea.

It’s a mistake, however, to imply that all British folks love Marmite. (Remember that “Love it or Hate it” slogan?) It actually appears that equal numbers of folks love and hate it. The rest don’t really care. Fair enough. Like most things, it’s pretty easy to tell if you like it: just try it! OR, you could make it much more difficult and newsworthy, which is just what Marmite’s ad agency did in 2017.

For this campaign, Marmite worked with scientists to develop a genetic test that would tell if someone was a “lover” or a “hater.” A quick cheek swab could be analyzed and tell you if you had the Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms that predisposed you towards enjoyment of the spread. The research was basically just done for a funny ad campaign, but it also showed that although certain flavors might be pleasant or unpleasant to us (I’m looking at you, cilantro!) our circumstances can overcome our tendencies. It also showed that the British have a great sense of humor about their strange foods.

In closing, always remember that while Britney Spears loves Marmite and Madonna hates it, Men at Work are Vegemite all the way…

Join us next week for the thrilling final installment of the Tale of Two ‘Mites.

 

Cucumber Pickles

A giant jar of pickles sits next to niagara falls. Two folks go over the falls in barrels. This Indestructible food is at home anywhere!

“Are you gonna eat that pickle?”

Cucumber pickles have been around for a really long time. Like, they’re mentioned in the Bible. Twice. And they gained global popularity for good reason. Pickling preserves foods. Cucumbers are great, but they have a very short growing season and they spoil really fast. So if you wanted to save the million pickles from your garden for later, throwing them in salt water brine was a great way to go. And it worked out well, because if you were poor, and had to eat bread and potatoes for every meal during the long winter months (I’m looking at you, Eastern Europe) a pickle would provide a much-needed bit of variety to your everyday fare. If you were rich, chances are you still wanted delicious, piquant side-dishes. Pickles are for everyone.

While pickles were and are an egalitarian snack, in the USA, pickle prevalence really picked up speed with the arrival of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in the late 19th through early 20th-centuries. They introduced the dill pickle, which was a sensation. Soon, NYC became a pickle hot spot. Vendors appeared on every corner selling pickles for a penny a pop. Anyone with a barrel on wheels could become a businessman! Elsewhere in New York, (Niagara Falls to be exact) people were putting pickles to use in a different way, launching themselves over the falls in pickle barrels to varying results.

People were eating more pickles because they liked them. But also because a tradition had begun whereby if you ordered a sandwich in a deli or restaurant, the default side dish was a pickle spear. You might get chips or fries, but you would definitely get a pickle. Which made sense, because when you are eating something fatty and delicious (say, a pastrami sandwich…. or even a grilled cheese) cleansing your palate with a bite of something acidic as you go makes it all the more enjoyable. This tradition upped pickle consumption, and gave us a new way to classify our friends. Those who leave their complimentary pickle spear behind and those who eat every unwanted pickle at the table.

Nowadays you can eat fresh cukes year round. And you get a big fine if you go over Niagara Falls in any kind of barrel. But pickles persist. That is, after all, what they were invented to do. 

Sauerkraut

A “moist cabbage side dish” for a modern lifestyle…

It’s New Year’s Eve. And we need to talk about Sauerkraut. Because apparently it’s good luck to eat it today. Cabbage is green and that means money. (You will be rich!) The long strands mean your life will be long. (You will be old!) It is a perfect New Year’s Eve food. A note: Kimchi brings this luck, too! But that post is coming soon, so…

Sauerkraut is a German word, but rumor has it that China was making suan cai a LONG time before Europe was making sauerkraut. The idea was that if you took cabbage and layered it with salt and let it ferment, you could have nutrients when you had no fresh food on hand. (Bye, scurvy!) During WWII, American Sauerkraut makers renamed their product “Liberty Cabbage,” to avoid any associations with Germany. (Take a seat, “Freedom Fries.” Americans are old-school uncool.)

These days, sauerkraut is known as a popular “moist cabbage side dish” worldwide. You can find it atop pastrami sandwiches and hotdogs, inside pierogi, or dunked in soups. It’s even served with Thanksgiving turkey. What people used to eat out of necessity, they are now consuming on purpose. Brilliant.

The only real downside to sauerkraut is flatulence, and even that will not offset the good luck you’ve accumulated by eating it. So Happy New Year, friends. I wish the best for you. 

Pickled Eggs

A big jar of pickled eggs is flanked by two happy chickens.

When an egg is a snack food…

Eggs were not always a year-round food. It used to be that you had eggs when your chickens were laying. Which was generally when the weather was warm or mild. When you had eggs, you probably had a LOT of eggs. And when you didn’t, you might have wished you did. Pickling was the solution to all of that. (That was a pickling pun, albeit a weak one.)

As far as history, some people say that there were pickled eggs on the Mayflower. Some say that they originated in Germany in the 1700’s. They were certainly around England by the 1830’s. But everyone agrees that pickled eggs were a great idea and a useful snack in saloons and taverns. And that makes sense, because eggs contain an essential amino acid that promotes liver function. Which you’ll need if you’ve been drinking enough to think that fishing an egg out of that giant jar is a good idea.