ustralia’s most famous and seemingly most unlikely icon. How could a yellow and red labelled jar of thick, dark brown spread be revered by a nation and fawned upon by thousands of expatriates longing for a touch of their sunburnt country? Some would say it is the taste but offer Vegemite to an Englishman and he would politely say he prefers Marmite. In fact in 1928 Vegemite was renamed Parwill, a play on words of the English product. The public would have none of it and Vegemite it soon became again.
In 1922 a Fred Walker obtained some waste brewer’s yeast from Melbourne’s Carlton & United Brewery with a view to producing a foodstuff of some kind. Walker appointed Dr. Cyril Percy Callister, a food technologist, to experiment with the raw material and hopefully come up with something edible. Walker's cheese factory was in Kerford Road, Albert Park.
Months of trial and error passed before Callister came up with a formula believed to contain celery, onions and salt and like other successful products the recipe to this day remains top secret.
The label, complying with Australian foodstuff legislation, lists the ingredients as :
- yeast extract
- mineral salt
- malt extract
- natural colour
- vegetable extract - which vegies? We don’t know!
Vegemite went on sale in 1923 and gradual success was boosted when Callister had the product tested for vitamin content and the test results confirmed Vegemite was an excellent source of Vitamin B. By 1933, sisters at baby health centres were recommending it to mothers as an ideal food supplement.
Fred Walker was born in 1884 and had an up and down business career in Australasia and Asia until the successes of Vegemite and processed cheeses.
The 10 years younger Callister was born on February 16th, 1893 in the tiny village of Chute, some 60 km northwest of Ballarat. He had a brilliant academic career and moved into the food production industry after qualifying B.S.C. in 1914 from Melbourne University. A stint in the armed forces during the Great War found him working with explosives in Britain. On return to Australia he rejoined his previous employer only to be lured away and take up Fred Walker’s offer to work on the challenge of making something of the brewing waste.
Callister was also a pioneer of processed cheese and his success enabled Fred Walker to contract with the James L Kraft organisation of Chicago, U.S.A. to make Kraft processed cheese under licence in Australia.
The Kraft Walker Cheese Co. was formed and to this day Fred Walker cheese can be seen in your supermarket, and it tastes even better spread with Vegemite.
Unfortunately, Fred Walker did not live long enough to see Vegemite become the icon it is today. He died relatively young at 51 of heart disease.
World War 2 was when Vegemite was iconised. The product’s high vitamin content ensured most of the production was sent to the armed forces and this of course left shortages and high demand at home.
In 1954 advertising brought us the ‘We’re Happy Little Vegemites’ jingle which children today still sing - and adults too, may I add. Click on the icon at the top of the page to hear the jingle.
We're happy little Vegemites, as bright as bright can be, we always eat our Vegemite, for breakfast, lunch and tea.........It puts a rose on every cheek!
As I write this I have in front of me a 115g jar of Vegemite like the picture on the page. A similar jar was the first product electronically scanned in a supermarket in Australia in 1984.
Next time you venture overseas take a jar of Vegemite with you for your friends. Better still, take 2 jars, one for yourself, of course!