Start typing the sentence “Vegemite tastes like …” into Google and the search engine quickly gives you three suggestions for completing your thought.
The first option is “soy sauce,” an apt description of the salty brown sludge so popular in Australia.
The second is “beer,” which also makes sense considering Vegemite is made from leftover brewers’ yeast extract.
The third suggestion, however, is less than obvious.
According to Google, at least, Vegemite tastes like sadness.
Why a breakfast spread would be associated with sadness is a peculiarly Australian tale of poverty and addiction. And the answer lies somewhere in the overlap between the search engine’s three suggestions.
Vegemite is a cousin, so to speak, of Marmite, the yeast-based spread invented at the beginning of the 20th century in England. The British B-vitamin spread was wildly popular Down Under until its supply was interrupted by World War I. Conflict offered local food manufacturer the Fred Walker Co. — which would later become Kraft — a window of opportunity. The company hired a young chemist named Cyril P. Callister to develop Australia’s own version of Marmite, according to the Vegemite Web site.
For nearly a century, Vegemite has been a barometer of Australia’s culture and economy. From the contest to come up with its name to its iconic advertisements, memorable radio limericks and nostalgia-inducing “Happy Little Vegemites” commercials, the product charts changes in Australian society over the 20th century.
In 1981, the Australian rock band Men at Work memorialized the spread in their song “Down Under,” which contains a line about a Vegemite sandwich.
“Vegemite started as a wartime substitute for Marmite, but it’s now as symbolic of Australia as Sydney Harbour Bridge and the koala,” the BBC reported in 2012.
To outsiders, however, the malty toast-topper tastes terrible.
In 2011, President Obama risked angering Australians by saying that he found Vegemite to be “horrible.”
But during the past week, the beloved breakfast spread has been pulled into a much more serious and particularly Australian debate over alcoholism and the rights of the indigenous.
On Sunday, Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion warned that Vegemite was being used to make bootleg booze in indigenous communities where there is a ban on selling alcohol.
Calling the condiment “a precursor to misery,” Scullion told Brisbane’s Courier-Mail that some indigenous Australians were using Vegemite to brew bathtubs full of moonshine.
“Adults and even young children are getting drunk on the home brew, which at times is mixed with orange juice,” the newspaper reported. “Senator Scullion said children in some communities were too hung-over from all-night benders to go to school.”
In some instances, people had bought as many as 20 jars of Vegemite for the purpose of home brewing, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
Australia’s indigenous population suffers from a significantly higher rate of alcohol abuse, according to the country’s Bureau of Statistics and Institute of Criminology, and indigenous Australians are up to eight times more likely to die due to alcohol than their peers, according to recent research.
In the interview, Scullion mentioned the possibility of a legislative ban on Vegemite in certain communities but said the government preferred for local leaders and businesses to crack down on the problem instead.
Scullion added that he was tired of hearing about “people’s rights” rather than dealing with problems related to alcohol abuse, such as domestic violence and child neglect.
“Wouldn’t it be terrible to ban Vegemite?” he told the Courier-Mail. “Well it’s a precursor to misery in (some) communities.”
The newspaper also quoted police union president Ian Leavers on the problem of Vegemite moonshine.
“Where there is a will, there is always a way and in indigenous communities I have seen alcohol brewed from many things such as Vegemite,’’ he said. “While we cannot just go out and ban everything that could possibly be used to make illegal alcohol, at the same time common sense needs to take place and if people are purchasing large quantities of an item that could be used for brewing illegal alcohol, questions should always be asked.”
The mere suggestion of banning Vegemite caused a stir in Australia.
On Sunday, shortly after Scullion’s comments were published, his boss, Prime Minister Tony Abbott came out to reassure Aussies that nobody was going to pry the Vegemite from their hands.
“The last thing I want to see is a Vegemite watch going on,” Abbott said, “because Vegemite, quite properly, is for most people a reasonably nutritious spread on your morning toast or on your sandwiches.”
To some of Abbott’s critics, however, the breakfast spread skirmish is just another example of the prime minister’s harsh policies toward the indigenous.
Although Abbott has so far made good on a campaign promise to spend a week of each year living among Aborigines — conducting meetings from a tent in Australia’s vast Northern Territory last September — he has also drawn criticism for pulling funding from aboriginal communities and calling their culture mere “lifestyle choices.”
Great to be in Arnhem Land – looking forward to the days ahead. pic.twitter.com/IozhB0zSTk
— Tony Abbott (@TonyAbbottMHR) September 14, 2014
“What we can’t do is endlessly subsidize lifestyle choices if those lifestyle choices are not conducive to the kind of full participation in Australian society that everyone should have,” Abbott said in March, according to the Guardian. “If people choose to live miles away from where there’s a school, if people choose not to access the school of the air, if people choose to live where there’s no jobs, obviously it’s very, very difficult to close the gap.”
“Fine, by all means live in a remote location, but there’s a limit to what you can expect the state to do for you if you want to live there,” added the prime minister, a feisty politician who once ate a raw onion whole on live television and earned the nickname “the bomb-thrower.”
Opposition politicians called Abbott’s decision and comments “deeply disturbing and highly offensive.”
Some anti-alcoholism advocates, meanwhile, say that Scullion’s comments exaggerate the problem.
“We’re talking about an isolated problem in a couple of communities around a very large nation, and a nation where there is a very large number of Aboriginal communities, and every community is different,” John Boffa of the Northern Territory-based People’s Alcohol Action Coalition told the BBC.
For now, at least, all of Australia can enjoy Vegemite: the beloved breakfast spread with an aftertaste of sadness.