Somewhere on the East Coast of Australia between Sydney and Brisbane is a town of about 10,000 people called Casino. It gets a mention in the second verse of Lucky Star's 1962 hit, “I've Been Everywhere,” along with a zillion other towns, and in many ways it's not much different from any of them. It's small, green, pretty, and, outside the hours of nine to five, eerily desolate, Twin Peaks style.
Like many other country towns in Casino, Australia is determined to put its name on the map. Instead of building a monument of historical, cultural, industrial, or absolutely no relevance like Gundagai's Dog on the Tuckerbox or Woombye's Big Pineapple, Casino's point of difference is an annual event called Beef Week. Casino calls itself the Beef Capital of Australia, even though a larger town in Queensland called Rockhampton claims the same title. But while Rockhampton’s streets are lined with sculptures of cattle—whose balls are routinely removed by pranksters and replaced by council—Casino one-ups it with Beef Week.
Some facts: Beef Week stretches on for ten days and attracts around 20,000 visitors each year. At Beef Week, one can enjoy events such as steer judging, a rodeo, whip cracking, a fashion parade, drag racing, square dancing, orchids, hypnosis, something called “cow pat lotto,” a street parade, and/or a tribute to Slim Dusty called "Dustier Than Ever." Each year also has a theme, and this year's was Italiano.
We decided to take the scenic drive to Casino for the 29th annual celebration of Beef Week. On the outskirts of town we tuned our dial to the town's own beef-themed radio station—C.O.W. FM—to get in the mood. We were primarily interested in the Miss Casino Beef Week competition. It's the festival's most distinguished event, and is basically like a beauty pageant where entrants are sponsored by beef breeder associations. The winner represents the town and festival for a year as a kind of symbolic embodiment of the beauty of beef.
This year six women competed for the title of Beef Week Queen. It was Casino's night of nights, serious and prestigious. Couples arrived well-dressed, and though the invitation suggested it as an option, no one showed up Italiano-styled.
Amy Morton won the crown last year. On this night, for one last time, she was wrapped in the official sash and royal blue robe customary of the Beef Week Queen. Winner's tiara stashed in her left hand, when a photographer approached her she dug its combs into her hair. Amy explained that entrants are free to choose which breed they want to represent. She selected Angus because “I've always liked Angus, I guess.”
Like all the entrants I spoke with, Amy says she entered to give back to the community. She's also very passionate about the beef industry: She's a qualified butcher who used to work at an abattoir in Casino, and these days works in meat management. Of this year's entrants she said, “They're all really great individuals in themselves and I think every one of them has a chance of winning.”
Let's meet them:
Anna Supple is 21, works in financial planning, and has entered the competition the past four years running. She likes her steak well done--“I don't like blood.” Though she’s traveled to Thailand and been on a cruise, she is always glad to come home to Casino.
Anna was representing Brahman, and when I asked her about the breed she whispered, “Oh Jesus, now I've got to remember this.” Composing herself, in a careful, textbook voice she began: “They can adapt to any sort of environment. They don't take in much water so their nutrients stay in their bloodstream, which makes them very good to... reproductive system?” She continued, “Ah... they came from... South... America, and there was... they originated from four breeds in Indi...a and one from Britain. They're very fertile, they're low maintenance, and that's why they're such a good cow from Australia.” She dissolved into giggles.
Born in Casino, Tiarna Brooker is 19. When she finishes her studies and traineeship, she wants to move to the Gold Coast and hopes to “live in a nice house, have a nice stable job, and good income.” She likes her steak medium-rare with barbecue sauce and is representing the breed Romangnola.
“The Romangnola,” she said, “is well-known for its muscle capacity, so it's going to produce a high quality beef. Because it's such a calm-tempered animal, it's going to lower the risk of being injured or bruised.”
Like the breed she was representing, Red Angus, Margaret Young, 18, had the air of a winner. Her confidence came from her beef industry pedigree, having been involved in junior judging and junior parades for the past eight years. “And,” she said, “I live on a beef cattle farm. We've got just under a thousand acres right outside of town.”
Red Angus, she explained, has a great temperament, making them safer than others to work with. “When they do get sent off to get slaughtered they don't cut dark because they don't get stirred up before. They'll be nice and calm so the meat's good. High quality carcass!” She flashed a winning smile.
Like Margaret, Kathleen Hancock, 20, had been involved with cattle from a young age. “I was involved in the parade and the junior rodeo, and I thought 'now that I'm older I'll give Beef Week Queen a crack.'” She was born and raised in Casino, and until recently her ambition was to manage a cattle feedlot. She’s currently hoping to continue her career in aged care.
I asked Kathleen what breed she was representing. “I'm a Braford,” she said. “They were bred for tick tolerance and heat resistance. And, like, the eyes... they um... what would be the word? They reduce the risk of eye cancer, pinkeye, and blight, so they're really good in any climatic zone, really. Really good muscle tone.” Do they taste good? “Ye-ah,” she said, laughing. “I s’pose.”
Encouraged to enter by a work colleague, Cathy Broadrick grew up in Casino but her family moved away for six years. During that period she traveled back to town every year for Beef Week. She chose Santa Gertrudis as her breed because “when they mature the bulls are 900 kilos. That's starting from 900 kilos on up, and females have a natural maternal instinct, so as soon as they become mums you can sometimes see one cow with about ten calves around her. They're very tolerant so it doesn't matter what kind of climate, whether it's in Victoria or Northern Territory, they're very acclimatized.” She paused for breath, preparing to launch into more. I thanked her for the explanation. “That's enough?” she asked, surprised. Yes.
We moved on to a more personal topic: boys. Cathy's boyfriend of two and a half years is in the army, “somewhere in the bush at Singleton.” Though aware that she’d entered the competition, he’d have to wait till she got back to hear the news if she won. “I've seen him four times out of five months,” she said. I asked Cathy what she wants from life. “A family. Family is very important to me... um.... just... I don't know. Simple things, like family and my partner—I'd like to be with him.” Trying to cheer her up, I asked about her taste in steak. “How do I like my steak? Medium to medium-rare. I like a little bit of blood and a little bit of pink, but anywhere beyond that it's not really a good steak anymore. It's... dead.”
Courtney Lane is 19 and, like most of the other girls, a Casino native. She works in real estate and just got a promotion. “I'm working in the property management department now,” she told me proudly. Her description of Limousin, her chosen breed, was the most coherent I heard all night: “Limousin originated in France and they’re found in about 70 different countries now. They're the largest breed in the UK and the seventh largest breed in Australia. Up to about 80 percent of their meat can be sold and eaten, so that's pretty good. The French ones are all naturally born with horns, but in Australia we've developed polled Limousins. If they are still born with horns they get dehorned at a very young age.” Like her explanation of Limousin, Courtney likes her steak well done.
Inside the Mirage Room, where the pageant took place, a few hundred people sat at large round tables eating steaks about two and a half fingers thick. Amy and the entrants sat together, their chewing documented by three photographers—one heavily pregnant, one who looked like he had covered this event for the past 20 years, and my guy.
After speeches and jokes that I didn't get, the girls were individually introduced. They then regurgitated their spiels so nervously they resulted in such statements as “Beef Week is a very spiritual event for Casino.”
Half an hour later, it was announced: The winner of this year's Beef Week Queen was Margaret Young. Courtney Lane was the runner-up. Someone yelled out “Red Angus!”, excited about his favorite breed winning. Clutching a large bouquet of flowers with a look of disbelief and humility, Margaret Young burst into tears.
While Margaret and Courtney were hugged, snapped, and hurrahed, some of the girls sat on a couch looking disappointed and unimpressed. No longer burdened with the possibility of representing the town for the next year, their masks had slipped.
Courtney, the runner-up, looked dazed. I asked her if getting up in front of all those people was scary. “I was more scared of falling up the stairs than anything,” she said, breathless and giggly. Congratulators flocked her, and I was granted a moment to ask how she felt. “Shocked. Proud though. I'm, like, honored a bit,” she said, her eyes glassy and wet.
As my 30 seconds with 2011's Beef Week Queen were ending, I quickly asked her if she was happy. “Ecstatic. I'm looking forward to the week ahead, because I'm going to have a great week with the girls. I think it should be really fun.” The girls on the couch, shoulders hunched, clutching empty glasses, look thrilled.