A Vegemitey legacy

Jamie is proud to share his story of a national icon.

Jamie Callister, Palm Beach, Qld

Toast. What do you like to spread on yours? Jam? Honey? Or what about a bit of good old Vegemite? Ever since it first graced our kitchen cupboards back in the 1920s, the dark gooey stuff has become a staple of our national diet.

However, it has an extra special place in my heart. I only discovered it when I was around six years old and Dad suddenly blurted it out at the breakfast table. ‘My old man invented that,’ he said, pointing at the familiar red and yellow jar as I dipped my knife in.

Looking at Mum, I saw her nodding in agreement. ‘He’s right,’ she said. ‘Your grandfather, Cyril Callister, invented Vegemite in 1923.’ I remember being totally overwhelmed with pride.

Unfortunately, the trouble was that not everyone believed me.In fact, when I told my mates at school, they all laughed. ‘My pop invented honey,’ one teased. ‘And my grandad invented peanut butter,’ smirked another. Deflated, I vowed to keep my Vegemite connection to myself from that day forward.

Still, every so often a journalist would call Dad to interview him about Cyril. ‘I’m getting too old for this,’ he told me a few years back. ‘You take over, Jamie.’ Wanting to do Dad proud, I did some research.

My Grandfather, Cyril Callister (Credit: Supplied)

I soon discovered that a Melbourne entrepreneur called Fred Walkerhad recruited Cyril, a chemist, to invent a product using brewer’s yeast, which is rich in minerals as well as B-complex vitamins. There was a British product, Marmite, already on the market and it used yeast extract as an ingredient, but it was almost impossible to obtain because of the food shortages after the First World War.

An Australian version simply made sense. After creating the recipe, they held a competition for the name, offering a 50-pound prize to the winner. The name Vegemite was drawn, and it was sold as ‘pure vegetable extract.’

These days, the tasty spread remains an Australian icon and my three kids, Sophie, Nick, and Lucy, are Vegemite kids through and through. But while almost 23 million jars of the stuff are now sold each year, it took more than a decade for it to become popular.

In fact, it was very unsuccessful at first. At one stage more jars of Vegemite were rolling back to the factory than were going out. ‘We could be looking for a new job next week,’ Cyril said to one of his employees.

But Grandad was an amazing man. When he heard about James Kraft – who was manufacturing processed cheese in America – he took a boat there to see him. After the meeting, Grandad’s boss, Fred, began manufacturing the processed cheese here in Australia and they came up with the idea of giving away a small jar of Vegemite with each sale.

“The tasty spread remains an Australian icon.”

Nothing beats it! (Credit: Supplied)

Appetite for the paste grew. The British Medical Association gave it their seal of approval just before the Second World War. The Australian armed forces then had Vegemite included in their rations and the post-war baby boom saw mothers giving it to their kids. And since then Vegemite’s popularity has grown.

Food writer Nigella Lawson has a pasta recipe that includes it as an ingredient and last year Prince William was presented with a jar during his trip to Australia and New Zealand.

I’m so incredibly proud of my grandfather’s legacy that with the help of writer Ron Howard, I published a book titled The Man Who Invented Vegemite. Now all Australians can read about Grandad. And I sincerely hope that we will all be happy little Vegemites for a long time yet!

Originally published in that’s life! magazine – Issue 4, 2013.

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