Few Australian know the name Cyril Callister, but many of us would consider his invention a national icon.
Today, more than 22 million jars of Vegemite are sold every year, yet when it was first produced in 1923, the divisive spread wasn’t eagerly embraced by the public.
A mitey tale
Its distinctive tangy flavour, both overwhelmingly salty and yeasty, divides tasters into one of two camps: those who love it or those who hate it. The rules about the proper way to consume it often sparks passionate debate, while its uses have spread beyond those of a mere condiment, becoming additions to soup, bakes and even ice cream.
In writing Vegemite: The true story of the man who invented an Australian icon (2023), Cyril’s grandson Jamie Callister initially set out to learn more about the grandfather he’d never met but had grown up hearing about.
He spent seven years researching Cyril’s previously unknown and untold story, and discovered a man of immense determination and innovation.
Jamie writes: “…with the exception of the odd game of lacrosse, his career was his hobby. It may also have been his life, too.”
Cyril was a chemist living in Chute, west of Ballarat, with his wife and three young children when Melbourne’s Fred Walker & Co hired him to create an alternative to Marmite, the popular yeast spread from the UK. With food shortages after WWI, it could have been an incredibly lucrative venture. However, many still didn’t like the taste.
Cyril dedicated himself to the task of getting the recipe right – often to the detriment of his family relationships. While it took him a year to perfect the blend, it took another 15 years for the salty black paste to become a household staple.
Spanning the Gold Rush, the Depression and two World Wars, this book also offers a fascinating look into modern Australian history. This revised edition features a collection of photographs, a new introduction and an epilogue that shares the story of how Vegemite returned to Australian hands when it was bought by Bega in 2017.
“It’s not just my story, I feel like it’s our story,” Jamie said in a recent interview with the BBC. “We’ve all got ownership of Vegemite in some way, it’s who we are. It’s in our DNA.”
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