MELBOURNE — Before arriving in Australia this week, my knowledge on the subject of Vegemite could fit in a thimble. I knew that it was a food item of some kind, I knew it was iconic in Australia, it’s name-checked in Men At Work’s “Down Under," and, in terms of widespread popularity, I knew it had not made the leap to American shores. What I didn’t know was how it tasted. In fact, I didn’t even know it was a spread—because of the name and the song, I assumed it was some kind of tofu-like meat substitute.
So when I saw the small Vegemite packets on offer in the media center dining area, I decided to give it a shot. This met with enthusiastic approval from Daisy (name changed to protect the innocent), a friendly caterer who had just introduced me to Caesar salads in a jar (verdict: pretty good!), and who was anxious that I like it. She described it as "tart" and "salty," and sent me on my way.
Back at my desk, I put a small quantity on my knife, reasoning that my first Vegemite experience should be pure, untainted by the medium of bread. This was not my brightest idea—if I had to describe the taste, it would be “sludgy tar mixed with dangerous quantities of salt.” My blood pressure shot up to 250/130 (estimation), and I might have hallucinated my death. It was revolting, even in a very small dose.
That was Monday, and on Tuesday morning, back in the dining room, I reported my findings to Daisy. When I told her how I’d tasted the original Vegemite—on its own, no bread—she was scandalized.
“That’s suicide for your taste buds!”
Not mad but very disappointed, she insisted that I try it on toast with butter, the Aussie way. I told her that I would under no circumstances try Vegemite ever again. We parted on friendly terms, but something had changed, and I knew we’d never be quite as close.
Then I remembered something—my editor was seeking stories with a local angle. Hadn’t I just stumbled on one by accident? I mentioned it in an email, perhaps secretly hoping he would nix it, only to receive a reply that filled me with dread: “I like the idea.”
Doomed to taste anew, I returned to Daisy and told her that the situation had escalated. This was now a full-fledged act of journalism, and if she was still up for it, I’d need her to prepare Vegemite toast for me in the traditional Australian way. She agreed, and we spoke again about the “unique” taste.
“If you were my grandchildren, and you went like this”—here she gave a look of disgust that perfectly matched my original reaction—“I’d tell you to turn it upside down.”
I was baffled. “The toast?”
“Yeah. Your taste buds are at the top, right?” she asked. I nodded, even though I had no idea if this was true. “Well, if you turn it upside down, the Vegemite is on your tongue.”
This piece of advice, which amounted to disguising the Vegemite so it wasn’t as noticeable, struck me as a poor endorsement. Still, I agreed to come back in the afternoon to experience Vegemite-á là-Daisy. In case she didn’t realize the stakes, I reminded her that an entire country was counting on her.
“That’s if I’m still alive,” she said, patting her heart anxiously.
• • •
And now we learn about Vegemite.
It was actually developed here in Melbourne almost 100 years ago, and it’s made from—I’m quoting Wikipedia—“leftover brewers’ yeast extract with various vegetable and spice additives.” It is kosher and halal, and can be safely enjoyed by vegans.
Also, in the interest of fairness, I should mention that many people love it. The brand was last sold in January 2017, and the sale price was $460 million. Which means lots of Australians must be buying it, and in great quantities.
However, the first Australian I asked about Vegemite was Mark Hayes of Golf Australia, and he had quite a different take.
“Shane, I might be the one Australian who despises it,” he said. “My mom puts it on toast like stucco, and when I first had it when I was a little kid, it was served way too thick.”
That inspired a lifelong aversion, and when I asked him to describe the taste, he spoke my language. “It’s disgusting, mate. It’s yeast and salt. It looks like road tar. From where I live, coming into Melbourne, I drive by the Vegemite factory every day, and it smells like a sewage farm.”
I turned next to Justin Falconer, also with Golf Australia, who was not pleased with his co-worker’s heresy.
“He’s a disgrace,” Falconer said of Hayes, well within earshot. “You’re brought up on it. It’s good with butter. The key is, don’t have too much. Less is more.”
“What’s good about it?” I asked, hoping to solve the mystery.
“What’s good about anything?” he asked philosophically. “It’s salty. It’s tangy.”
Michael Clayton, the Melbourne native, former pro, and course architect, overheard the conversations and came down firmly on the pro-Vegemite side.
“I love it, mate,” he said. “It’s the best. I was raised on it.”
Twice I’d heard the same argument: It’s good because I had it when I was a kid. But was it possible to enjoy Vegemite without the sweetener of nostalgia? I needed an American endorsement, but I certainly wouldn’t get it from Golf Channel’s Jay Coffin, who tried a bit of it on toast, and said he felt like he was going to “ralph.” Nor could I turn to Golfweek’s Steve DiMeglio, who, when I asked if he liked it, responded with, “have you tried it?” DiMeglio still suffered from his original Vegemite trauma, when he was pranked by his parents after they returned from a trip to Australia bearing the spread. They told him it was the “best thing they’d ever tasted,” and managed to hold their laughter long enough to watch him endure the unsuspecting misery of his first bite, which he promptly spit out.
It was DiMeglio who told me to ask Webb Simpson about his experience with Vegemite, and Simpson was understated but emphatic. “I didn’t love it,” he said, in way that made it clear that he had, in fact, hated it.
I was drawing dead with the Americans. Luckily, the whispers and rumblings around the media center soon brought me to Doug Ferguson of the Associated Press, the rare American proponent.
“The first time I had it was in ’09 here,” he said, referring to that year’s Australian Masters. “And I thought, when in Rome, you had to. I had a tall glass of water ready to go, and I slathered it on like peanut butter. There were about eight Aussies around me, and when they saw that, their eyes got wider than anything you’ve seen from Ian Poulter.”
Ferguson didn’t know it was supposed to be a thin spread, but the knowledge of the natives saved him in time, and he liked it immediately. He liked it so much, in fact, that he continued to eat it once the Presidents Cup was over, in America. Then he brought some to Augusta in the years before Adam Scott won the Masters, to give the Australians positive mojo. Today, visitors to his home will often be forced to try Vegemite, especially if they’re trying to date his daughter.
Somehow, I had stumbled upon America’s foremost disciple for this Australian product, and if Ferguson could learn to love it so completely, surely I could give it another shot.
• • •
So it was back to Daisy, who helped me prepare it the “right” way. First, the toast had to be warm. Second, we lathered on an entire pad of butter. The Vegemite itself went last, spread extremely thin. Then it was time to taste. When I took my first bite, Daisy tried to influence me by suggestion.
“You like it,” she said, and when I didn’t respond, she grew insistent. “You like it.” She menaced me with the butter knife in her hand. “The lady holding the knife says you like it.”
I’ll level with you—despite the threat of stabbing, I wanted to keep hating it. I thought the funniest ending to the story would be despising Vegemite just as much the second time around. And yet . . .
It was fine. I finished the whole slice. It even had a quality that I can see myself describing, in some vague future, as “good.” What’s more, when I turned the toast upside down, I discovered that Daisy was right—it had a milder taste.
I’m no Doug Ferguson. I won’t go out of my way to make Vegemite a part of my diet back home. But it’s with a certain amount of disappointment that I must report, to curious Americans, that it’s not entirely horrible. With that in mind, I hereby give Vegemite permission to use the following quote, which represents my final verdict, in any future marketing materials:
“Vegemite: It’s downright tolerable!”