The snack that's an iconic Aussie "food thing"

The story of Chiko Rolls

Hello and welcome to Snack Stack, the newsletter that explores the history, origins, and cultural significance of snacks. If you like it, please subscribe! There’s a free snack every Wednesday (like this one!) and paid subscribers also get snacks on Monday and Friday.

Chiko Rolls

Image via Wikipedia Commons

The basics

Welcome back to variations on a hand pie! This time, it’s not a pie so much as a tube 'o food with a filling of cabbage, carrots, barley, beans, onions, wheat cereal, beef, and beef tallow. Despite the name, there’s no chicken here.

I try not to use Wikipedia as a source, but I love the deadpan poetry of this description: “The filling is partially pulped and enclosed in a thick egg and flour pastry tube, designed to survive handling at football matches.” Yum!

Update, August 12, 2021: Added some new photos below, all courtesy of Tim Richards. Check out his website right over here or find him on Twitter.

The place

Australia

The story

American politicians love petty disputes over food—it’s an easy, low-stakes way to do battle mostly outside of politics but with some regional pride at stake. Last year, the governors of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut argued about who had the best pizza, and there’s a long history of politicians making bets with their counterparts on sporting events (it started with a block of cheese, years ago). But I had never heard of politicians squabbling over the origin of a food until I learned about the Chiko Roll, an Australian snack that is the epitome of “processed.” (Thanks to my friend Tim Richards, a travel writer from Melbourne, for the tip.)

The usual version of the product’s history starts in 1951 with one Frank McEncroe, a boilermaker from Bendigo. (Let's pause here to note how poetic, even mythic, that bio sounds, and how well it would work in a redo of “Waltzing Matilda”: And he's a boilermaker from Bendigo, you see.)

Anyway! One day, McEncroe was thinking there really should be some kind of handheld food people could munch on while attending sporting events and local fairs, and he recalled the shape and general format of the egg rolls sold by Chinese immigrants, which became the basis for his new and oh-so-convenient food: a long, baton-like snack that fit right in your palm. McEncroe used a small hand-fed sausage-maker to create his first batch, people loved them, and they became ubiquitous at fish and chips shops and the like across the country. By the early 1970s, Australia’s 12.5 million residents were, collectively, eating 40 million Chiko Rolls every year.

Somehow—and I’m not sure what specific factors led to this; it doesn’t appear to be documented—Chiko Rolls eventually got a promotion from popularity to mythology, becoming linked to national identity and considered in many quarters to be fundamentally Australian. A few years ago, for example, when The Economist ran story about Australia’s booming economy, the headline read, “On a Chiko Roll”—the snack itself didn't appear anywhere else in the story, it was just a convenient pun built on the strong connection between comestible and country. More recently, Australian Times called it “the iconic Aussie…um, food thing.”

In 2016, a national debate about the Chiko Roll erupted when various politicians began arguing about which town, exactly, could claim the grabbable grub, and what genius actually deserved credit for its initial invention. The long version would make an excellent five-part podcast, with all manner of shocking twists and turns and puzzled asides, but here’s the short version:

It all began with MP Andrew Gee of the center-right Nationals party, who stood up in Federal Parliament to hail the Chiko Roll and, specifically, its origins in the New South Wales town of Bathurst. Not so fast, said Nationals MP Michael McCormack: “It was launched at the 1951 Wagga Wagga Agricultural Society Show!” He even brought out receipts in the form of a museum artifact:

We have in our Riverina Museum in Wagga Wagga the Gold Chiko Roll given to us by the manufacturers, acknowledging the fact that Wagga Wagga is home of the Chiko Roll.

Soon enough, a third snack-combatant entered the fray, Labor MP Lisa Chesters, vouching for Bendigo. “It's just outrageous that these NSW MPs ... can try and claim credit for the Chiko Roll ... it was invented in Bendigo by a Bendigonian,” Chesters said. “I'd strongly request the National Party to do their research, at least start with the back of the packet; it says on the back of the packet that the Chiko Roll was born in Bendigo.”

(For reference, it’s not really a matter of geographical nuance because these three towns are not particularly close to each other: it’s about 729 km from Bendigo, in Victoria, to Bathurst, in New South Wales, with Wagga Wagga roughly at the midpoint between them.)

Eventually, the McEncroe family weighed in, saying that Bendigo was the one true home of the Chiko Roll, but adding a new twist by crediting Frank’s brothers, Leo and Gerry, as co-creators. (Take that, established national mythology!) And, finally, the Chiko Roll corporate PR team spoke up, as only corporate PR teams can do, to assuage all concerns, welcome all consumers, and spread the word that their product was for everyone, saying (direct quote!): “Well good news to all of you fighting over its home – it kinda comes from everywhere!”

So there you have it. The Chiko Roll, despite politicians’ efforts to claim otherwise, is a symbol of Australian unity, an edible icon for everyone who loves eating icons. Everyone lived happily ever after and there was never any political discord in Australia again.

And now, please enjoy this classic ad for Chiko Rolls:

Get it here

Across Australia, wherever snacks are sold. If you’re outside the country, you’ll have to settle for a cross-stitch version available on Etsy, or perhaps you would prefer a throw blanket or some leggings.

Will you like it? 

Probably!

Read more

Museum of the Riverina: “The Gold Chiko Roll”

SBS: “Love it or loathe it, the Chiko Roll is a food icon”

Australian Times: “Birth of Chiko Roll controversy rocks Aussie parliament”

ABC (Australia): “Chiko Roll debate heats up as Bendigo family back Victoria's claim on snack's origins”

Happy snacking!