ALMOST as soon as seven-month-old Penny McCann started eating solids, she was enjoying Vegemite on toast. "You should see Penny with Vegemite all over her face," says her mum, Kate McCann.
Like Penny, millions of Australians have grown up with the salty, brown-colored yeast on their toast. According to Kraft General Foods, which makes Vegemite, the product has 90 percent of the yeast-spread market Down Under. The company brags: "Vegemite yeast spread is as much a part of the Australian tradition as kangaroos, the Outback, and world-class tennis players." Kraft's surveys have found that 88 percent of all Australians have Vegemite in their pantries. The nonalcoholic product is made from the spent yeast left inside beer barrels.
Robern Australian Fruits in San Pedro, Calif., imports a pallet a month of Vegemite to sell to specialty stores. In the United States, it costs $1.99 for a 115-gram jar (4 oz.). In Australia, the same jar is about A$1.35 (US$1).
There is no question, to this non-Australian, that Vegemite is an acquired taste. After one sniff, Americans usually put the Vegemite lid back on the jar. One of the reasons for the lack of appreciation is the way it is used. "You don't spread it on like peanut butter; you spread it on real thin," explains Lionel Cronin, a Sydney building attendant.
There are plenty of theories about why Australians like it so much. "It's very healthy, and is better for you than a teaspoon of jam," says Margie Williams, an Australian now living in Bethlehem, Pa. Indeed, the company promotes the spread as rich in vitamin B. Williams compares Vegemite to a soup mix, or concentrated bouillon. In fact, the company is now promoting Vegemite as an additive to meatloaf, or a base for gravy.