Buying bread from a man in Brussels

He was 6'4" and full of muscles.

I said, "Do you speak my language?"

He smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich.

-- From the chart topping song

"Down Under," by Men at Work

Only in America could the rocking popularity of a Top-40 tune begin encouraging people to try Vegemite, Australia's peculiar yeast superfood.

The salty, beefy-tasting spread is an Aussie passion. It's used regularly in 90 percent of all Australian homes, topping toast rusks and raisin bread at breakfast. A byproduct of the brewing industry, Vegemite is so high in B vitamins, it's the first solid food for many Australian infants.

Although some U.S. hotels keep jars of the dark brown substance on hand for foreign guests, Vegemite had not been distributed in this country until January 1982, when a Costa Mesa, Calif., firm headed by Diana Todd, 40, a homesick Australian, began importing it.

"I get calls and letters from Australians who can't believe their beloved Vegemite is finally in the U.S.," said Todd, whose firm, Australasia Ventures, has placed the jars in health-food stores nationwide and in four California grocery chains. "Americans don't understand it. Australians drag it through customs and get quizzed about what they're hiding in it."

To many Americans who have tried it, Vegemite poses three immediate drawbacks: taste, color and unfamiliarity.

"I've got a jar in my apartment," said Mike Martucci, 47, in charge of promotion for Columbia Records, the label for the Australian group Men at Work. "I smell it. I look at it. I know it's not going to hurt me, but I can't bring myself to eat it. And this from someone whose favorite dish is octopus!"

One of his coworkers, Marilyn Laverty, announced, "I was not tempted. It's absolutely disgusting looking. I threw it out before it infected the office."

Kraft Foods has tried to sell Vegemite in the United States; the most recent attempt was in 1969. It never attracted much interest, but since the hit single "Down Under" was released two months ago, the concentrated yeast extract has gotten new attention from youthful rock fans.

* In Grand Forks, N.D., a radio station got so many questions from listeners about Vegemite that it organized a Vegemite party in December at a local bar, appropriately named Down Under.

* WMJC-AM in Detroit is throwing a Vegemite party for 1,000 people later this month, complete with Vegemite T-shirts and an employe in a seven-foot kangaroo costume.

* At the University of California at Long Beach, a Vegemite sandwich-eating contest with 20 entrants was held during a dance last month. The winner ate five sandwiches in two minutes.

Even people associated with Vegemite's manufacture, import and publicity are surprised the eating contest drew that many contestants. Unlike the ease with which Americans have begun enjoying Australian movies and music, Vegemite is an acquired taste.

"It doesn't appeal to the American palate," said Dave Roycroft, a public relations coordinator for Kraft Foods in Chicago. Its Australian affiliate has been making Vegemite in that country for 60 years. The consistency of the spread closely resembles Cheez-Whiz, also a Kraft product.

Woody Westlake, 37, a Los Angeles executive with the advertising firm of Chickering and Howell, even tried Vegemite in vodka to come up with a use palatable to American. "I don't think I used the right proportions," he said apologetically. "I'm going to keep fiddling with it." He added, "But my wife's using it in soups. Does that count?"

A key instruction is to use Vegemite sparingly.

"A mere smear is what we encourage," advises Todd. "There's a saying by Australians, who are passionate in their defense of Vegemite: "Your face may frown, but your body will smile.""

One happy eater is James Miller, 19, of Falls Church, a clerk at the Natural Foods Supermarket in Arlington. He spreads it on bagels and has been eating Vegemite for months. "When I heard the song, I said, "Hey, that's the stuff I've been eating.""

The Australian Embassy in Washington posts the supermarket's telephone number on its message board because so many callers ask where to find Vegemite locally. "Because of the song, people have been calling the embassy, so we've sent it to places in South Carolina, Indiana, all over," Miller said.

This writer found the taste better than the warnings suggested, a mixture of beefy, salty and cheesy flavors. The name is taken from its celery and onion flavorings (vege), plus its reputation for building strength (mite), said Westlake, who is conducting market research on the product here and in Australia.

The "serve size" is one-half teaspoon. That contains 6 calories, no carbohydrates, fats or cholesterol.

Vegemite is available for $3.85 a six-ounce jar at the Natural Foods Supermarket, 6184 Arlington Blvd., in the Willston Shopping Center in Arlington (536-2010).

It can be mail-ordered from Australasia Ventures at $11.94, plus $2.70 shipping, for six four-ounce jars. Todd also sells Australian mild ginger products (marmalades and ice cream toppings). Visa and Mastercard accepted. Address: 3100 Airway, Suite 106, Costs Mesa, Calif. 92626.