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Mighty Vegemite

The black, yeasty spread is a tough sell for most consumers. But for Jews in Australia—and Aussies living abroad—it’s a kitchen staple.

Nomi Kaltmann
July 19, 2021
Antonin Cermak/Fairfax Media via Getty Images
Antonin Cermak/Fairfax Media via Getty Images
Antonin Cermak/Fairfax Media via Getty Images
Antonin Cermak/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

This past spring, Sarah Hogarth, an Australian-Israeli living in Jerusalem, had a major problem: Her supply of Vegemite, which she had been able to maintain for over a decade while living in Israel, was about to run out. Hogarth posted a picture of her last, almost empty jar on the “Australians Living in Israel” Facebook group with the caption “How’s the timing? Brilliant!”

For the uninformed, Vegemite is a thick, black, salty, yeast-based spread that was created in Melbourne in 1922 using leftover brewer’s yeast extract. It has a strong, malty, slightly bitter taste that gives it a unique umami flavor. Across Australia it is a firm favorite with millions of kids who grow up eating Vegemite as their spread of choice in sandwiches.

For Australians living overseas, the global pandemic has caused mass upheaval and disruption. While most countries implemented temporary restrictions on travel, Australia effectively sealed its borders to all inbound and outbound flights in March 2020, with seats on flights into the country scarce and prohibitively expensive. With no date set for when the country’s borders may reopen, the situation looks to remain like this for at least the next year or so.

“Usually there is a network of people going back and forth between Israel and Australia, so my mum would send me jars of Vegemite in care packages. I would also get the odd jar from my friends who were traveling,” said Hogarth. “But the pandemic stopped virtually all flights, so it has been really hard to maintain my Vegemite supply. The mail has been appalling.”

Hogarth knew she had to act fast to replenish her stock. “My daughter will only eat Vegemite on pita or toast. She won’t eat hummus, cheese, or peanut butter, so it’s a real problem,” she lamented. However, Hogarth was in luck: Her post was spotted by no less than Australia’s ambassador to Israel, Paul Griffiths.

“He sent me a private message on Facebook letting me know that he had seen my post and he had a few spare jars of Vegemite he would be happy to deliver to me!” she exclaimed. Hogarth was delighted. “There is nowhere to buy Vegemite in Israel; my last jar was from Poland,” she said. “My boss went there, and we ordered it to where she was staying so she could bring it home for me; it’s an absolute necessity in our family.”

When Hogarth finally met Griffiths to receive the goods in Jerusalem in early June, the ambassador posted a picture of their meeting on the Australian Embassy’s Facebook page. The post garnered many likes and comments, with one person commenting, “Americans in Israel can’t even get their passport appointments and Australians get this kind of service. Nice job.”

Despite Vegemite’s popularity at home, Australians are used to the difficulties they face if they want to purchase it when they are living overseas. Ilia Benatar, a 28-year-old Australian, remembers the challenge of finding Vegemite in America. “I was living in New York City and at Zabar’s they were selling these tiny, imported jars for $14.99,” she said. Faced with no other choice, Benatar brought the jar back to her apartment, where she was subjected to horrified questions from her American roommates. “They asked me: What is that black spread?! It smells like moldy miso!” While she concedes that “if you didn’t grow up with Vegemite, perhaps it can be slightly off-putting,” Benatar tried to extoll the tastiness of the spread to her roommates, although her efforts were futile. “They didn’t get it,” she said. “One of my roommates who tried it even started gagging.”

While among Australians, Vegemite is a clear winner, elsewhere in the world the spread is subject to much debate and revulsion, with foreigners failing to see how such a spread could be so beloved. As one American recently told me, “The thought of Vegemite has me running for the hills!”

But its popularity remains, especially among Jewish Australians. Vegemite has been kosher-certified since about 1980, barring a short period in the early 2000s when the certification was rescinded because the manufacturer began processing beef products on the same production lines. This brief pause in certification caused mass hysteria in the Australian Jewish community, with Vegemite panic-buying stripping supermarket shelves bare.

“A baby has milk, an Aussie kid has Vegemite,” said Mark Chaskiel, a resident of Melbourne who is crazy about the spread. “I remember when the kosher certification was taken way; my wife and I, we went out and bought about 35 jars. It has a good shelf life, but as the months wore on, people started running out and began checking to see who still had the kosher-certified jars of Vegemite available for trade.”

During this bleak time, intense lobbying was underway. “Michael Danby [a Jewish member of parliament at the time] raised the issue in the Australian Parliament that an iconic food such as Vegemite should not be denied to the kosher public in Australia,” said Yankel Wajsbort, the general manager of Kosher Australia, one of the country’s largest kosher-certifying agencies.

Community members sprang into action, letter-writing campaigns were launched, and mainstream media covered the debacle. The intense pressure bore fruit and Vegemite had its kosher certification reinstated. “Initially only one size was approved, but over time we have been able to certify all sizes,” said Wajsbort. “As a knock-on effect of Vegemite being kosher, there are many retail products that are now kosher-certified.”

Marsha Thomson, a Jewish former member of the Victorian parliament and minister for small business, recalled this Vegemite debacle. “There is no way that any Australian Jew would accept that Vegemite in any shape or form would not be kosher; it is inconceivable,” she said. “Vegemite is fundamental to Australians who grew up here.”

She was not surprised to hear that Ambassador Griffiths had hand delivered jars of Vegemite in Israel. “It is a very decent thing to do, to help out an Aussie in need,” she said. “Only an Aussie would understand the importance of having Vegemite delivered once you’ve run out.” (The story, including an interview with the Australian ambassador was recently retold on an episode of Tablet’s Unorthodox podcast.)

Thomson is partial to eating Vegemite on matzo. “Strictly speaking, you’re not supposed to have Vegemite on matzo on Passover,” she said, because the spread is yeast-based. “I usually eat it after Passover on my leftover matzo.” For her, the allure of Vegemite is the salty, savory, umami full flavor. “I actually prefer it on matzo than on toast,” she said.

Vegemite is so ubiquitous in Australia that it has entered mainstream Jewish cooking, with Jewish Aussies using it in cholent to add a salty flavor; in addition, the local supermarkets sell kosher-certified Vegemite cheese scrolls (“Cheeseymite Scrolls”).

“You have to convince people to try Vegemite slowly,” said Maaryasha Werdiger, the owner and founder of Zelda, a popular kosher sourdough bakery in Melbourne. “You have to tell them to slather it with loads of butter on toast and then gradually increase the Vegemite,” she sagely advised. “Often if it’s slathered on thickly from the outset, people think it is chocolate and take a big bite and then you’ve lost them forever.” (For what it’s worth, Hugh Jackman even educated Jimmy Kimmel on how to properly eat it on American TV.)

With lines stretching down the sidewalk from her small bakery shopfront, anything Werdiger bakes sells out instantly, with hourlong queues of people waiting to get their hands on her baked goods. In the past year, she has taken Jewish-Vegemite cuisine one step further: She created, to her knowledge, the first ever Vegemite-and-cheese babka. “Originally I made it for a friend’s birthday,” she said, “but I also made a few more to see how they would be received.”

According to Werdiger, the Vegemite babkas were a big success: “It was very well received, the babkas were soft and salty with a brioche kind of dough.” While she was pleased people liked them, she did have some worrying thoughts. “At the time I was making them, I was thinking, is this blasphemy or not?” However, she soon felt better about her creation as the feedback rolled in from people who bought her babkas and enjoyed them. “I think we should own our Australian Jewish culture; these sorts of fusion are not blasphemy, we are so multicultural, so I think it is OK to create modern Jewish Australian cuisine,” she said.

At least for now, Vegemite will retain its extreme popularity across Australia. When I spoke with Zoe Goodhardt, a mother of three school-age kids, she was pragmatic. “What else am I supposed to put in my kid’s school sandwiches, when all Australian schools are nut-free [due to allergies]?” she asked. “Maybe when Australian schools decide that I can send nuts, I will be able to consider putting peanut butter or some other spread in my kid’s sandwiches, and then Vegemite may finally have some competition. But for now, it’s only Vegemite with butter for my kids each day. No question.”

Nomi Kaltmann is Tablet magazine’s Australian correspondent. Follow her on Twitter @NomiKal.