Group show featuring:
Opening Friday 4 September 6-8 pm
Exhibition dates: 4-27 September
Castlemaine – The True Home of The Chico Roll
It should come as no surprise to learn that Francis (Frank) McEncroe, the man who invented the ‘Chiko Roll’ was born and raised in Castlemaine. This iconic Aussie snack-food could only have been conceived by an inhabitant of a town that has an obsession with shafts and tube-shaped objects deeply embedded into its collective psyche.
150 years ago, Castlemaine was a boomtown, mounted on top of one of the richest bodies of alluvial gold in the world. Many fortunes were made in the shafts that penetrated the rich, softly yielding earth of the region but the orgy of activity was interrupted when the tunnels of gold ran dry and the town had to open itself up to other sources of liquidity.
The new industries that managed to flourish in Castlemaine shared a common thread in that they almost entirely concentrated on the manufacturing of tubular objects. A series of factories grew up along the railway tracks and daily loaded up huge quantities of cylindrically shaped goods that ranged from the flaccidly soft sausages (and slightly firmer salamis) of the giant KR Castlemaine pork factory; to thick, long rolls of carpet from the woollen mill and hard, steel pipework that was extruded hot out of the furnaces each day at the busy Thompson’s Foundry.
The collective desire to drive shafts into the ground was now superseded by the need to build towering smokestacks that served these new industries and dominated the skyline of the town. This lust for verticality even inspired the erection of an oversized granite obelisk that was raised on a prominent hilltop site overlooking the centre of town as a commemoration of the comically incompetent and disastrous Burke & Wills expedition. This strange object sits on its rocky rampart facing a smaller, more circumspect obelisk firmly rooted at the other end of the town’s main shopping street.
This was the Castlemaine that Frank McEncroe knew in his early years. After attending the local Primary school, he completed an apprenticeship at Thompson’s Foundry where he spent many hot, sweaty hours beating off the rough edges on (cylindrical) water boilers for the railway locomotives that Thompson’s serviced.
During the Great Depression in the 1930s, Frank tried a variety of jobs (including a period as a licensee in a Bendigo hotel) before he and his brothers started a business selling fast food at sporting events. One day, outside the Richmond Football Club oval in Melbourne, Frank saw a Chinese food vendor pushing a barrow of chicken chop-suey rolls. Franks immediately realised that a larger, stiffer version of this product would be the perfect accompaniment to any Aussie sporting event. What could be more perfect than a deep-fried snack (with a filling of indeterminate meat) that “you could grab with one hand, while holding a beer in the other”?
‘McEncroe’s Chicken Roll’ (soon to be renamed the ‘Chiko Roll’ when the fact that it contained zero traces of chicken became a potential legal issue) was first sold at the 1951 Wagga Wagga Agricultural Show and was an immediate success but the real boom came in the following decade when the Chiko Roll became the de rigueur beachside snack for Aussie surfers (who helped push sales numbers up to 40 million Chiko Rolls per year by the early 1970s). Advertisements in every milk bar and fish & chip shop in the country featured a range of buxom, winsome and raunchy women urging the young men of Australia to wrap their hands around a hard, hot shaft and “get into a Chiko”.
The rest is history but sadly, it’s a history that has left Castlemaine, the true home of the Chiko Roll, completely written out of the narrative. In the recent 50th anniversary celebrations of the Chiko Roll’s invention, Simplot Foodstuffs (the American conglomerate that now owns the Chiko brand) decided to award a life-sized gold-plated Chiko Roll (in an “accompanying presentation box lined in red satin”) to the town of its origin.
Simplot became embroiled in a tussle with three towns that claimed the Chiko Roll as their cultural heritage. Wagga Wagga based its case on the fact that the Chiko precursor (the inaccurately named ‘McEncroe’s Chicken Roll’) was first seen at their annual show. Bathurst argued that the establishment of the central Chiko Roll manufacturing and distribution plant in the 1980s made their town the natural home of this key Aussie icon. Bendigo also threw in a bid, using Frank McEncroe’s temporary residency in that town during his adult years as the basis for a limp assertion (backed up with a clearly doctored Wikipedia entry) that he was a native Bendigonian.
Simplot eventually decided that Wagga Wagga and Bendigo would each be awarded a Gold Chiko Roll. Every citizen of Castlemaine shares in the eternal shame that we didn’t even put in a claim of our own or raise a voice in protest as those imposter cities stole our cultural property right out of our hands. Castlemaine got shafted in this deal and we only have ourselves to blame.
Of course, some might argue that none of this matters because the Castlemaine of today is very different to the place Frank McEncroe once knew. Would he recognise a town that now has more baristas living in it than boilermakers? More steam-punks than steam-locomotives? Where artist collectives run exhibition spaces that decorate their entrances with disused toilet bowls?
I’d think to think that Frank would still recognise Castlemaine because the essential characteristics remain intact despite some shifts in culture. Yes, the carpet factory is now a Viennese Kaffeehaus but the huge smokestack that once served its mill has been left as it was when first erected and the most popular pastry served in the Kaffeehaus is strudel – a long, warm, delicious tube (with nuts) that comes with a dollop of fresh cream.
Frank would also understand why a community of specialist car enthusiasts that refer to their vehicles as ‘Rods’ decided to make Castlemaine home. Yes, he would perhaps be momentarily surprised at the many shelves of gluten-free, vegan food on offer now in the local grocery stores but he would be relived and delighted to hear that the largest industry in town still involves the butchering of massive numbers of pigs.
It is probably too late to liberate the gold-plated Chiko Roll that the Mayor of Wagga Wagga boastfully wiggled around in a photo on the front cover of his limp, little local newspaper. We are probably also powerless to alter the fact that Bendigo City Council keeps an identical, ill-gotten prize (with its “accompanying presentation box lined in red satin”) on permanent display in a class case that is located in a rear passage of their chambers building.
However, It is certainly NOT too late to take raise our voices and assert the real story about Castlemaine’s role as the birthplace of Frank McEncroe and as the only true home of his great gift to the world.
Simplot Foodstuffs, we demand to know: Where is OUR Golden Chiko Roll?!
(First Chiko Roll: Balnarring Beach, Victoria, 1965)