Australia conjures up images of white untouched beach coastlines, the Sydney Opera house and a big metal bridge that Oprah Winfrey lost her shit on after getting stuck at the top trying to climb it. Drive inland 9 hours in a rental car, however, and you’ll find the foundations of which the isolated continent was built on: small country towns with wide open streets, colonial buildings and pubs filled with honest, ‘salt-of-the-earth’ folk who’ve built their lives on the unforgiving dry lands which occupy the majority of the country’s landscape. So it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise to learn that one of Australia’s biggest exports is beef – and they celebrate the bovine like nowhere else on earth.
Where’s the beef? It’s here, in Casino, the self-proclaimed “Beef Capital” of New South Wales. The small settler town about 800 kilometres from the metropolis of Sydney, with a population of about 11,000, was founded by timber cutters in the early 1850s. Not much has changed there since, aside from the desire to put the sleepy agricultural town on Australia’s tourist map.
Now in its 32nd year, the annual Casino Beef Week Festival celebrates everything cow. Driving into the town, I was stuck behind a double decker cattle truck ferrying what looked like hundreds of cattle stacked on top of each other as it headed towards the abattoir. Every 30 seconds my windscreen would be covered in fear-piss and wet excrement leaking from the petrified cows.
“From cow shit lotto, cow milking and carcass-judging competitions to rodeos and cattle sales in the main street, Casino Beef Week is heaven for anyone who loves a good bit of meat”
That was my welcome to the beef capital and it seemed to set the tone for my next ten days in the isolated town.
From cow shit lotto, cow milking and carcass-judging competitions to rodeos and cattle sales in the main street, Casino Beef Week is heaven for anyone who loves a good bit of meat. One of the standout events is the beauty pageant which sees the daughters of local farmers and cattle breeders competing for the hotly contested title of “Beef Queen”.
The local club housed the formal dinner and pageant. Walking into the club, I pass a group of inebriated men at the poker machines. “Fucking faggot” gets thrown my way along with a choir of Cro-Magnon jeers and laughs, presumably because I was not clad in head-to-toe denim and I choose sneakers over riding boots. I immediately regret driving an entire day to what seemed to be a podunk celebration of all things beef 'n' bogan. I considered cancelling my accommodation for the coming week until I hear an older lady’s gentle voice from over my shoulder, “It’s okay, love, they’re just drunk inbreds.” Thankfully, the majority of the town is populated with those warm, humble people who mostly just seemed grateful, above all else, to have someone from out of town drive an entire day to celebrate their brigade of beef. I tried to keep my mind and heart open.
I was welcomed with an intense grilling and stare-down by the steely event organiser within minutes of arriving. “I just need to look you directly in the eye to make sure you’re not going to be mean to our girls like those other journalists.” The pageant has received some less-than-positive press in the past, probably because the bright-eyed country girls are competing for the title of "Beef Queen" and most of us can't understand why anyone, especially a young woman, would want to be titled Miss Brahman or Miss Angus Bull, as each of them represent a breed of cow which they somehow personally relate to.
The winner of the crown went to born-and-bred local preschool worker Brooke Hancock, a sweet young country girl embodying the pride of the festival. Brooke represented the Braford breed, an Aussie cow that is resistant to cattle ticks and tolerates the heat better than other breeds.
“I've been practising my pretend queen wave for the street parade. I’m pretending to be Honey Boo Boo today.” I suggested she may want to aim little higher than Honey Boo Boo. “But if I the set the bar lower, I won’t disappoint!” she contests.
I had my money riding on the runner-up, Ebony Nowlan.
"I entered because who I am today has been strongly influenced by growing up in a rural town. It’s taught me a lot by growing up here. The qualities I have are also something that Casino could be proud of.” Ebony represented the Friesian breed, a sweet and docile dairy cow known for being the world's best milk-producing animal. “I wanted to represent Friesian, because my best friend is a six-month-old Friesian calf.”
“I wanted to represent Friesian, because my best friend is a six-month-old Friesian calf” – Ebony Nowlan, Beef Queen contestant
Wait. Your best friend is a calf?
“Yeah, but Friesian isn’t considered beef cattle.”
I later found out that Ebony was also a vegetarian. I liked her and from what I could see, she seemed to be the only vegetarian that I could find. I respected the ‘Rocky Mountain oysters’ she had to stand up proudly and buck the beef in a town built on the rearing, killing and eating of animals.
"I don't eat meat, but if I did, it would be have to be really well-cooked…and no blood."
My second pick for the crown was Caitlin Vlahos, an 18-year-old apprentice fitter and welder. Caitlin failed to place, though she offered the most honest insight that I heard that night. “There’s not really any events for young people to attend in Casino. We need chances to meet other people so they feel comfortable living here. All the younger people move away because they don’t like or don’t get along with the people here.” The crowd of event planners, council members and town-folk fell uncomfortably quiet at such a suggestion. The host caught the disapproving sentiment of the crowd and after a few awkward laughs, he quickly moved on.
I sat down in the lobby after the crowning to make some notes, but was quickly told to move so the photographer from the local paper could snap some of the event planners “in better light". It wasn’t until one of the ladies from the committee added, "Yeah, mate, piss off and write your article somewhere else!" The gaggle of older women laughed, so I obliged and 'pissed-off to write my article elsewhere'.
That fraction of the town kept being the counter to every good experience that was offered. 'Here, come join us...but fuck off if you don't subscribe to this way of life'.
The next morning I try to keep the kumbaya spirit of beef in mind as I truck on to breakfast with the butchers – a big meaty cookout held in the main street of the town. It's clearly one of the most popular events. Thousands of meat fans descended on to the hay-covered streets of the town as we all queued up like cattle in roped-out lines to score a free steak sandwich...at 6:30 in the morning.
The town doubled in size and, among the sea of flannel shirts, embellished riding boots and missing teeth, was the setting of the next event on my list: Cow-Poo Lotto. A metal fence and a tarpaulin spray-painted with numbers in squares set the stage for its star attraction, a petrified 13-year-old dairy cow named Mandy who seemed almost ashamed to be lured into the arena, knowing that hundreds of loud punters would soon be yelling and encouraging her to take a dump on the numbered square that they paid $2 for in the hopes of a good return on investment.
“Nowhere else on earth will you find a group of people so happy to witness the emptying of a cow's bowels”
Poor old Mandy did a few laps of the lotto board before unloading a steaming dollop of dung that sent the crowd into overdrive. Nowhere else on earth will you find a group of people so happy to witness the emptying of a cow's bowels. It was special, though it made finishing my free steak sandwich an impossibility. Mandy appeared to glare at me with contempt every time she rounded the corner of her cage. It's an odd feeling to be standing on streets that are literally lined with cow shit, gnawing away at the end product of something that's making eye contact with you as you wait expectantly for her scatalogical explosion.
According to the president Stuart George, the town went through "half a tonne of beef, 400 loaves of bread, twenty odd kilograms of butter and a lot of sauce."
There was a rodeo, some local art exhibitions, an orchid show and the Mr Beef pageant, which was the polar opposite of the Beef Queen’s demure presentation. Mr Beef was essentially The Full Monty with riding boots. Beefed-up and brawny young dudes from the town swilled back shots of Jäger before jumping on stage to rip their clothes off to an LMFAO-heavy playlist.
Between the meat sweats, cow shit and heavy Deliverance presence, it was an easy step back to my car and an even easier step towards vegetarianism.
I haven't been able to eat meat or wear plaid since.