The Man Who Invented Vegemite: The True Story Behind An Australian Icon. By Jamie Callister. Published by Murdoch Books.
It was 2006 and we had been travelling in Europe for two months when we arrived in St Petersburg to stay with a mate who had been studying and working in Russia for a couple of years. One of the first things he said was, “You haven’t got any Vegemite by any chance, have you?” He was absolutely delighted to discover that we had a large tube and was eternally grateful when we left it with him. We were no different to many Aussies these days who travel overseas with a tube or jar of the black paste that put a rose in every kid’s cheek.
Vegemite is not just a health food that most of us were raised on, but a symbol of our Australian identity. We love it and most other nationalities hate it – and we also love that they hate it. In that same year, we tried our tube of Vegemite out on a German guy that we stayed with during the Soccer World Cup. He thought it was one of the worst things he had ever tasted and challenged us to try it out on people as we continued our travels. He predicted that no one would like it. He was right except for one guy in Sweden who absolutely loved it. I always knew there was a special bond between the Aussies and the Swedes.
There is also a special bond between Turks and Australians, ignited in conflict at Anzac Cove and cemented by the famous words of Attaturk when he gave a speech saying that “your sons are now our sons”. The Turks are an enterprising bunch and they had our measure at Gallipoli, but I must tell you that they still have it because they understand the Australian Vegemite addiction. On our recent trip to Gallipoli, we visited the Turkish Memorial and among the stalls selling souvenirs were some Turkish lads selling Vegemite Cheese. This was a concoction of melted cheese and vegemite on a Turkish bread type pancake. One of the Turks kept yelling “Vegemite Cheese!” and the Aussies kept lining up.
Vegemite is more than an essential part of our diet, it is an Australian icon. But, despite this, how many people actually know the name of the man who invented it in 1923? The story of Cyril Callister is told in The Man Who Invented Vegemite. The book is written by his grandson Jamie who embarked on a journey to discover more about the ancestor he had never met.
He sets out a fascinating account of his family’s history, how they came to be chemists and the association between Cyril Callister and Fred Walker, whose vision and initiative gave Australia many of the food products that became household essentials, including Bonox and Vegemite. Walker partnered with the American food company Kraft and produced and distributed cheddar cheese in Australia using their method at a time when cheese didn’t last very long before going bad.
Cyril Callister was Walker’s chief chemist and pioneered the science of food technology in Australia and to a large extent, the world. He was an unassuming, hardworking and dedicated professional who sought out some of the most promising young chemists to work with him. One of the most interesting aspects of Cyril’s life was his involvement in both World Wars, made more poignant by the loss of his brother in the First World War and his oldest son in the Second World War. Jamie’s account of those tragic events provides an insight into Australia at war, both at home and on the front.
Happy Little Vegemites
Interestingly, it was not until the Second World War that Vegemite became so popular. Before that, despite the promotion, sales were not great. The song about Happy Little Vegemites was only played on radio after WW2 when it became a hit and the phrase subsequently became part of the Australian lexicon.
Personally I find it hard to understand why Vegemite wasn’t an instant sensation when something like Camp Pie was so popular. Having lapped it up since I was an infant, I could not imagine a piece of toast at breakfast time without Vegemite. There is something about a hot piece of toast with the butter and Vegemite melting together, washed down with a cup of tea. We have a lot to thank Cyril for and I would recommend that one way of doing it is to read his story.
My Vegemite addiction started at an early age when my twin brother and I were given the treat of licking out the last of the Vegemite jar on the front steps. I still do that.