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  • Writer's pictureMike Bechtol

VEGEMITE!? Curse you, Men at Work!

An acquired taste? It might take a while! Like many Americans of my generation, I first learned of Vegemite in 1982. Men at Work's catchy #1 autobiographical hit "Down Under" saturated the airwaves. Filled with imagery and slang from their native Australia, one of song's most famous lines is "He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich". I subsequently learned that Vegemite was a yeast extract popular in Australia, and commonly spread on toast... much like Americans do with jelly, jam and honey. Although an Aussie favorite, Vegemite was little-known in the US... available only in specialty stores. So for the next 35+ years, each time I heard that song, I would imagine how Vegemite might taste. It was a "yeast extract", so my mental image was shaped by the wonderful aroma of freshly-baked homemade bread... perhaps beer / brewer's yeast. I developed a rather specific idea of Vegemite's flavor, although I had never tasted it.

My special day came in June of 2017. On an Alaska cruise with my two sisters, we went to the buffet for breakfast and to plan our day. Of course, cruise ships carry passengers from multiple nationalities, and the wide breakfast buffet choices reflected this diversity. I loaded my plate with a goat cheese and mushroom omelette, some pickled herring and some salmon mousse... then I saw it!... Right next to the jams, jellies, marmalades, etc. was a JAR OF VEGEMITE! (actual jar pictured above). I opened up the jar and took a look inside, revealing an exceptionally thick, dark, tarry substance. Not quite what I had expected. A quick, discreet sniff confirmed my bread-like mental image, but with an odd undertone. Undaunted, I was truly excited that I would finally try this exotic treat decades after learning of it. I toasted some bread and slathered it quite liberally with the shoe-polish-like substance. I rushed back to our table where I would share the experience with my sisters. I took a medium-sized bite off the corner. Within moments, my decades-long expectations were annihilated. The powerful flavor was super-salty, unexpectedly bitter and had some strong and unusual undertones. Much to the delight of my travel companions, my visage revealed my intensely negative reaction. I HATED my first taste of Vegemite... a rarity for any new food. Later that day, I posted my experience on Facebook. I included the most harshly worded review of a food product that I had ever written or spoken...

"Vegemite tastes like someone who hadn't bathed for a year took a spoon and scraped out their armpits until they had enough stuff to fill a jar... then aged it for another few months. CURSE YOU, MEN AT WORK!"

The story does not end here.

Some respondents to my social media Vegemite review suggested that my first taste was done incorrectly. I had slathered way too much on my toast, similar to how we might spread jelly. A thin layer on buttered toast would have been closer to standard, and would have better complemented the toast. I was also reminded that Vegemite is a beloved staple on an entire continent. If millions of Australians and New Zealanders eat this stuff regularly, then perhaps I shouldn't dismiss it after one experience based on decades of misconception. And... there were those nagging oddball undertone flavors... I HAD to give Vegemite another try!

It cost about 8 bucks online, but my 220g jar arrived quickly. Alone at home with a new perspective, new information, and kinda knowing what to expect... I toasted some bread, and added some butter and a very thin layer of Vegemite. I accepted the saltiness and slight bitterness and became focused on those weird undertones. I ended up eating 6 pieces of Vegemite-coated toast that night. A little goes a long way, but I am now on my second jar. It's UMAMI, folks! It's that nebulous hard-to-describe flavor quality that resonates deep within our brains. It's what makes a slice of fresh summer tomato, a raw oyster, fresh garlic and so many other things taste so wonderful.

I hope to have the opportunity to visit Australia and/or New Zealand and enjoy a taste of Vegemite while exploring those beautiful countries. Perhaps I've been a bit hard on Men At Work. Their signature song now has a little extra meaning.

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