The meat raffle. A beloved game where the prize is a frozen turkey, a box of steaks or a chain of sausage links. For writer and vegetarian Patti See, winning a package of meat can bring on peak joy at her favorite local taverns in Lake Hallie.
A vegetarian walks into a bar for the meat raffle and air conditioning. I know it sounds like the start of bad joke, but it’s exactly what happened when I visited Heartbreakers Bar & Grill to try to win packages of frozen meat on a 97-degree June day.
My husband, Bruce, calls this stretch of Highway OO near our house the “Lake Hallie Strip.” A little less bling than the one in Las Vegas, but entertaining in its own way. Driving north, you’ll find Heartbreakers, Hallie Bar, Slim’s Lake Hallie Tavern and Thirsty Badger. Currently two of them advertise weekly meat raffles.
I’ve been a vegetarian on and off since high school. For the last fifteen years I’ve eaten mostly a plant-based diet, but I still enjoy making fall-off-the-bone pork roast, slow-cooked barbeque ribs, or rare steaks and burgers. I’m also an ex-smoker who will light your cigarette.
Heartbreakers bills itself as a modern-day saloon, thus their signs for “Cowboys” and “Cowgirls” over the restrooms. Bruce and I don’t have central air at home. Tonight, sipping ice cold beer from chilled glasses is the first time we’ve stopped sweating for days. “Let’s stay here forever,” Bruce says.
A meat raffle is like every raffle: buy a ticket and wait for your number to get called. As a Catholic, I’ve been playing this sort of game since I could hold my own paddle, usually a paint stick with markered-on numbers. At each church picnic I won more cakes or pop bottles than my family could carry.
Meat raffles are a longstanding Wisconsin tradition, from small town VFW halls to big city hipster bars, enjoyed by 90-year-olds to 20-somethings. Turns out WWII era meat rationing in Britain prompted the first “meat raffles.” People pooled their meager protein supply and some lucky chap won enough for a feast. This concept soon caught on in the United States.
Years ago when Bruce first read “Meat Raffle tonight” on a Highway OO tavern marquee, he thought it was a cool band name. We still laugh about that. Other businesses away from “the strip,” like the Eagle’s Club or Lake Hallie Sportsman’s Club, hold meat raffles for local charities. The Eagle’s takes a break June and July; that means for ten months of the year a winner could bring home the bacon three nights a week just in Lake Hallie alone.
Each time you buy a drink at Heartbreakers on Tuesday after 5:00 pm, you get a meat raffle ticket. Where else do the odds of winning increase the more you drink? The raffle begins at 6:00 sharp.
The second number called is mine. I whoop my way from our table to the bartender to verify my ticket and then whoop some more to the spread of frozen meat. It’s as if my name’s just been called on “The Price is Right,” only tonight it’s not Bob Barker but the twenty or so other patrons who smile patiently while yet another middle-aged contestant screams. I poke through the prizes: a 2-pack of ring bologna or a whole chicken, a bag of cheese curds or beef sticks, pork tenderloin or a rack of ribs.
I settle on a pound of jumbo shrimp. I never won crustaceans before, so of course I hold the frozen bag over my head like a trophy and whoop my way back to our table. We order another round of drinks.
Soon my cousin’s number is called.
We all cheer.
She chooses the ribs. Later Connie teases me, “Think there’s a vegetable raffle somewhere?”
Bruce says, “No one would go.”
I would, of course, and you know I’d win something.