by Emma Sloley
To be an Australian abroad is to be both an open book and a mystery. Everyone thinks they already know you because everyone has met an Australian, or has one as a best friend or co-worker, or once got shit-faced with a group of them at some bar in some far-flung corner of the world. We are few and yet we are legion. Our hearts and our passports are full.
Certain references tend to be invoked when I mention I grew up in Australia: koalas, crocodiles, The Outback, cricket, ruggedly handsome men, and for a certain demographic, throwbacks like Crocodile Dundee, Men at Work’s Land Down Under and “A dingo stole my baby!”
But beyond those associations, confusion reigns. What language do you speak there? Which side of the road do you drive on? How many hours does it take to fly there from here? (The answer invariably horrifies.) What do y’all eat?
We eat all kinds of delicious things, actually, having valiantly overcome a brutal colonial-era diet of boiled meat and vegetables in favor of a pan-cultural table at which you’ll find dishes as varied as shakshuka, spanakopita, Sichuan pork, bánh mì, and fiery green papaya salads, along with sublime seafood (yes, shrimps on the barbie are a thing.) Australian cities offer a panoply of excellent dining options, most of them familiar global fixtures: Sicilian-style pizza joints, cool noodle bars, Argentinian steakhouses, hip third-wave coffee shops. We practically invented avocado toast, may we be forgiven. But, like most nations, we have a secret culinary perversion understood and practiced only by insiders. That perversion is called Vegemite.
You’ve no doubt heard the jokes; seen the YouTube videos of non-Australians valiantly attempting to eat the stuff and gagging in the attempt; maybe even tried it yourself. If the latter, I can only apologize on behalf of my people. This stuff is disgusting by any objective measure. For a start, the optics aren’t great. Uncap that distinctive yellow-labeled jar and you’re confronted with a substance that resembles the oil leaks you see on the floor of a mechanic’s shop. Black, viscous, thicker than molasses, Vegemite doesn’t so much suggest food as something you’d use to weather-proof a roof. It smells like yeast and tastes like Guinness mixed with industrial-grade quantities of salt. Its main application is as a breakfast food. Breakfast!
And yet, I love Vegemite. It stirs up fond, nostalgic feelings. The warm, toasty smell of a kitchen in the morning; fluffy white-bread sandwiches squished into a lunch-box; the malty tang on a buttered cracker as an after-school snack. As a child I ate it unquestioningly, as one tends to eat whatever foods one is exposed to from an early age. As an adult, I appreciate its rich, salty, umami-ness.
Like many Australians far from home, I always have a jar or two stashed in the pantry. I rarely dip into it and yet I like knowing it’s there, like an old friend. The packaging hasn’t changed in decades and the recipe is the same as the day it occurred to the Kraft Foods company to perform the dubious alchemy of turning by-products from the beer factory into a breakfast spread.
But here’s the thing: I would never, ever expect any non-Australian to enjoy Vegemite. I fully accept that it’s horrifying and unnecessary. I accept it like I accept that I’ll never be the market for haggis, or pickled shark, or stinky tofu, or Twinkies.
I like that each place has one food—or several—that is simply incomprehensible to outsiders. It’s comforting to know there are benign culinary signifiers that will forever mark you as one of your people, no matter how far you might stray from your origins. Those weird, unlovely foods are little invisible paths leading back home.
Emma Sloley’s writing has appeared in Catapult, Yemassee Journal, the Tishman Review, Lunch Ticket, Structo, and the Masters Review Anthology, among many others. She is a MacDowell fellow and her debut novel, DISASTER’S CHILDREN, is forthcoming from Little A books in Fall 2019. Born in Australia, she now divides her time between California and Mexico. You can find her on Twitter @Emma_Sloley and www.emmasloley.com