02 June, 2013

Vegemite book

Do you know who invented Vegemite? Most people don't. His name was Cyril Callister.

A book's come out recently about it by the inventor's grandson. I received it for my birthday and it was an engaging read. Not the best book I've ever read, but interesting on a number of fronts.

Food science history
It was fascinating to see something of the history of the science of food manufacture. The story of Vegemite begins way back in the early 1900s, back before refrigerators, before there was much in the way of preservatives in foods. One of the most surprising revelations was that back then it was considered a positive thing if a food hadn't spoiled in a year.

This paragraph shows clearly how much has changed in the landscape of food:
One story from America emerged that a block of cheese had been found untouched by human hand after a decade. When the trusty tinfoil wrapper had been removed, inspection revealed it to be as edible and unspoiled as the day it was made. Sir Douglas Mawson was so impressed with its durability he took the indestructible cheese with him on the British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Mission in 1929. p98
Food history is something we don't often think or read about, but fun to peek into.

This was reported in 1926 in the US:
The Kraft Company of America claims...it has aided materially in increasing the yearly consumption of cheese in the United States from about two and three quarter points per head of population to about four pounds a head [nearly 2 kg] within the last few years. p84

Legal troubles for Kraft
I learned that Kraft, the company who manufactured Vegemite, sued a former employee who, they alleged, stole their process of making processed cheese. This lawsuit went all the way to the Privy Council in the UK, defended by a former school mate of Cyril, Robert Menzies (later to become Australia's Prime Minister). Kraft didn't win, however, defeated by fancy legal footwork over wording on the original patent.

Advertising is another big change. Obviously they didn't have multi-media in those days. Radio, newspapers, magazines, billboards etc. They relied a lot more on clever wording and jingles than visuals.

By the way, in its life Vegemite has had other names, including "Parwill" as in this advertising slogan:

"Marmite but Parwill", referring to the popular UK spread that was popular at the time. But the name didn't stick.

Vegemite was a slow starter, it first entered the market in 1923. But it didn't take off until WW2 when the person in charge of what would go in soldier's ration packs heard of Vegemite's vitamin tests. Vegemite was rich in Vitamin B, which the army was keen to include in the rations, and with a single stroke of the pen Vegemite "went to war", achieving "what no amount of advertising could—a permanent place of Vegemite in the national diet." p143

The book does meander off into family history a bit, I would have loved for it to stay more on the topic of food science, but still, it is a good read.

I am not personally a big fan of Vegemite, but we do have it in the house. It's the thing that Australians always send overseas Australians! If you'd like to try some, do ask. You might like to know, though, that the inventor wore out all his family with taste-testing as he worked to develop the spread.

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