I was a junior in high school when Men at Work released their song “Down Under.” Soon, everybody at my high school had Aussie fever. Possibly because we had never seen a music video — that was when MTV was practically nothing but videos — that started off with a guy wearing an off-shoulder black top popping up from behind a wooden crate and playing drums on the tops of beer bottles. Or maybe it was because Australia seemed like the most exotic and farthest place in the world from Davenport, Iowa.
But for me, it was the Vegemite.
In the tune, Colin Hay sings: “He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich.” But what was Vegemite? Back in those pre-Internet days, you couldn’t just Google “Vegemite” … because, uh, there was no such thing as Google. So there was plenty of misinformation to go around.
“It’s ground-up kangaroo meat, sorta like Spam,” was one popular myth. “No, you idiot, it’s some sort of vegetable pâté,” went another rumor. But my favorite was that Vegemite didn’t really exist at all — that it was a nonsense word like ?Häagen-Dazs, and Australian companies were feverishly trying to concoct a product for the masses in order to capitalize on the song’s worldwide popularity.
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As it turns out, theories espoused by 16-year-old boys are not exactly to be trusted (shocking, I know). Vegemite is actually a dark-brown paste made from brewer’s yeast. But I didn’t know that then. And even when I did discover Vegemite’s true ingredients and composition, I still couldn’t find an answer to the all-important question: What does it taste like?
None of my friends had ever been to Australia, and every time I asked a grocery-store employee if they had any Vegemite on the shelves, I’d get the “Kid, are you an idiot?” expression in return.
After a while I just stopped asking. But I never stopped wondering, especially when I’d hear “Down Under” on the radio or see Aussie supermodel Elle Macpherson on the cover of Sports Illustrated. (Yes, it’s true — I was probably the only young male in the world looking at Elle on the cover of SI and thinking about Vegemite.)
It wasn’t until my postcollege days that I got a little bit closer to Vegemite — in a singles bar, of all places. I was with some friends, and we noticed a group of young ladies who seemed unattached and decidedly available. But how to approach them without using a cheesy pickup line or putting too much of our fragile male egos on the line?
Vegemite was the answer, of course.
One of the girls spoke with an Australian accent, so I figured I could break the ice with a little bit of dark-brown paste. On my way over, I said a quick and silent prayer (“Please don’t let her accent actually be British, because I’ll look like an idiot”) and stood next to her as she ordered from the bartender.
Here was my chance. In my most casual-suave manner, I asked if she was Australian. I got a nice smile and an enthusiastic “Yes, I am” in return. Then I went for the kill: “Have you ever had Vegemite?” I asked. “I’ve always wondered what that stuff tastes like.”
I could’ve held up a chocolate-lab puppy, and I don’t think it would’ve gotten nearly the radiant expression from her that the mention of Vegemite did.
Yes, she told me, she had eaten Vegemite practically every day of her life when she was in Australia. On bread, toast, crackers — anything that had a surface on which to spread. But, she said, she hadn’t had much since moving to America, other than the occasional care packages sent by her “mum.”
“But what does it taste like?” I asked after she introduced herself as Sheila.
“Ohhhhhhh,” she replied, getting a far-off look in her eyes. “Hmmmmm, it’s hard to explain to somebody who’s never had it. Come on over to my table, and Rebecca and I will try to describe it; she’s had Vegemite too. Bring your friends.”
Over the course of the night, Rebecca and Sheila acted as a two-woman tourism council for all things Australian. The people. The cities. The culture. The beaches. They were such good sports that they even agreed to say “A dingo got my baby!” any number of times, just to entertain us Yanks.
All of which made Australia seem more and more appealing. To my great regret, I haven’t visited the Land Down Under — yet. But editor Adam Pitluk did, and his tale of snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef, discovering the hidden dangers of hugging a koala and surfing off world-famous Bondi Beach can be found on page 40. Even better, Adam went in search of Men at Work’s Colin Hay, who turned me on to Vegemite in the first place.
A great story, to be sure, but also a reminder that I still have never tasted Vegemite. I’ll get to Australia eventually, but feel free to send me some Vegemite in the meantime, mate. Sheila would want it that way.
Executive Senior Editor