Wednesday, June 17, 2009

unhappy little vegemite

So I promised my flatmate ages and ages ago when I first moved in that sometime before I moved out I would try Vegemite as a cultural experience. I knew I wouldn't like it, but thought it important to get to know my new home's customs. Back then that promise was ages and ages away from coming due, and the thought did not trouble me on a daily basis. Until today. (I'm moving out tomorrow.)

You see, I really am a gal of my word; I surely earn some sort of kudos for bringing up the impending doom, don't you think?

When I first set out for Australia I was given many warnings and pieces of advice, some more helpful than others. Avoid the box jellyfish and crocodiles were of course handy ones, shower in sunscreen every morning proved a tad more difficult in actuality. But every American I encountered who'd tried it gave me the same chilling words of caution: whatever you do, don't let them fool you into eating Vegemite!

Having already experienced Marmite one fateful day in England, I needed no second bidding. Clearly a brown substance sold in a small jar, spread on toast and ending in -ite was not something to be trifled with. The last time (I still remember it clearly) I'd nearly gagged to death in the upstairs Oak Hill kitchen. Thank goodness it was a place of prayer or I'm not sure what would have become of me.

Basically, Marmite is pure salt in brown clothing. Vegemite, I knew, would be worse. No one, after all, had even bothered to tell me to avoid Marmite, and it had clearly nearly killed me.

It's not that I don't like salt. I do. I even like a bit more than I probably should if we're sprinkling it on steak or fries. Two keys there: steak (not toast) and sprinkling (not slathering).

Before I proceed, I should explain that Vegemite is really a national dish of sorts. They haven't got so much in the way of national dishes in Australia. (The other day a friend asked a group of Australians about national dishes and a girl answered immediately, "Oh, you mean Thai?")

It's not entirely true that Thai's the only national dish. I mean, there is pavlova and ANZAC biscuits, both of which are delicious desserts, but also hotly contested by Kiwis. Beetroot on burgers jumps to mind as authentically Australian. (As does the first time I encountered it and was informed that I simply had to have beetroot. After first ascertaining that this was the same substance I simply called "beets," I became rather distraught. For, good and green as Australians are, I hadn't figured on all of them being vegetarian. Then they explained that they ate beef burgers, too, they just also happened to put beetroot on top of them. Sweet relief!)

But back to the national symbolism of Vegemite. I don't exactly know any of the surely intruiging history, but I am aware of a rather amusing ad campaign in which the general public is repeatedly asked how they like their Vegemite. They then are shown all the creative and crazy ways other true blue Aussies like theirs, whether it be "the Streaker" style, in a pizza shape, or anything in between. (Those two clearly being the only two I can actually remember. It is a cute campaign, though, don't get me wrong.)

And so the eve came for me to wield the Vegemite toast. My flatmate duly toasted and buttered the bread, then spread a few grainy dabs of Vegemite on top. To be fair, there wasn't a ton on my "Streaker" style toast, but, if my memory of Marmite served me correctly (and there really is little doubt on the matter), it would be more than enough to provoke culinary mayhem in my mouth. I was prepared, as would be any sane citizen, with a hot cup of tea.

Similarly to the time I recently jumped off a tree branch into a crater lake of somewhat unknown depth, it took me a few false starts to get up the gumption to chew and swallow. Finally I bit the bullet, taking care to avoid any streak of Vegemite on the first bite. So far, so good. The second bite was not so good. In fact, it went rather downhill. It had Vegemite on it.

But take heart, gentle readers, you see I am still here to tell you about the ordeal! All was not lost! Do remove your hands from your frightened eyes and continue reading with caution!

It was not so good, that is true. But, I managed to maintain a steady air flow to the lungs and my tongue did not automatically lull. I braved a third bite, to similar effect. A fourth and a fifth, and, please understand, I did not like the Vegemite, but it was actually better than Marmite! Now, again, this is saying exceptionally little, but as regards my physical wellbeing on that deep, dark night, it was not as adversely affected as it could have been. Far from well, of course, but not quite keeled over. Will wonders never cease!

And, yes, I finished that whole piece of Vegemite toast. (I hasten to add that there was thankfully no Vegemite on the final third of the toast, which was the only bit I was actually able to enjoy.) It was an epic effort, let me assure you, but in the end it was done. I came, I saw, I conquered. I was ridiculously proud of myself (coming from a girl who'd been known to spew the hot salt water she was supposed to gargle with for sore throats all across the bathroom, this really was an accomplishment).

And I will never eat Vegemite again.

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