Minocqua cooks ham it up with Beef-A-Rama

As the weather cools, out come the pots of chili, the Packer sweatshirts and the long-simmering beef roasts. It is this way in Minocqua, too, especially during the last weekend of September.

That is when local retailers pay homage to their customers, and they do it in an unusual way, by cooking almost one ton of beef, then parading it through the downtown.

More than one-half of the 85 roasts, which average 20 pounds each, brown and simmer on rotisseries, kettle grills and open fires along Main Street. Many of the cooks wear strange costumes as they babysit the meat and dream up ways to bribe the judges – like offering wine, to cleanse the palate.

This year’s Beef-A-Rama, the 43rd, starts with music and dancing on Friday night, Sept. 28, then the Rump Roast Run at 9 a.m. Sept. 29. Winners of the 5K and 10K events earn – you guessed it – rump roasts. About 500 people participate.

All the activity occurs in a relatively contained space, about four square blocks, which locals call “the island.” The average tourist listens to bands and munches on free appetizers at local businesses as the smell of beef permeates the air.

The late Harold Helterhoff established this festival, and wife Thelma would bake thousands of foot-shaped sugar cookies to give away. They owned a moccasin shop. Each cookie had a dab of red frosting on the toes.

“They called it the Fish-A-Rama during the first year, but didn’t actually cook any fish,” says daughter Shyla Helterhoff Wiesendanger.

These days, there aren’t too many rules. The roasts can’t be cooked at home. They have to be ready for the parade at 2:45 p.m., and judging before then.

Some cook the meat over scented wood chips. Some roasts are injected with garlic, spices, wine.

“We all have our secret recipes,” says banker Vickie Shughart, judged Best Chef with husband Scott in 2006. “We don’t clown around” was their theme, but beneath the frivolity is serious competition.

There is no way you’ll pry their recipe away. We have tried. Not even the Shughart children know it.

All the beef comes from TJ’s Butcher Block. “Inside rounds,” owner Tim Krolczyk says, of the cut. “They slice easily.” He has won the cook-off three times: 1997, 1998 and 2004.

“We all snoop at everybody else’s beef” while it’s cooking, he admits.

The Parade of Beef, led by a firetruck that transports the judges, takes all of 15 minutes. Tops. The cooking teams – with their roasts in wheelbarrows, displayed as mannequin heads, carried by hand, in wagons – march to Torpy Park, where volunteers quickly slice the goods and stuff thousands of sandwiches. Each sells for $3. People with pets get the scraps.

“It’s a gigantic ‘thank you’ from the merchants for a wonderful summer,” says Dick Strucel, operator of the Aqua Aire Motel, and an event volunteer for 25 years.

The beef gets wolfed down, au jus or with sauces of horseradish or barbecue. What you get may be a surprise of seasonings, Jamaican jerk to Hawaiian pineapple, and there is no method for categorizing the bounty.

You eat what you get, and the locals say it’s almost always pretty good.

Proceeds benefit local charities. Awards are presented to the best overall chef and winners in three sub-categories. Appearance and presentation (of both the cooking team and the product) count as much as taste.

There have been MASH characters transporting their cooked beef on a gurney, and a team in hospital garb that used an ER cart. Elvis impersonators, cows, witches, pirates, men in grass skirts and women in Superman outfits also are a part of this event’s proud history.

So many communities have festivals that are indistinguishable from one another. Not Minocqua, whose brilliant fall colors at this time of year would be reason enough to visit.

What’s happening this weekend? Something new: Wife Carrying Championships. At 11 a.m. Sept. 22 in Torpy Park, men will pay up to $50 to carry their partner 253 meters, across sand, gravel, water and log hurdles.

The grand prize: the wife’s weight in beer, five times her weight in cash and eligibility to enter the North American championships in Maine.

Runners-up get the wife’s weight in brats, non-alcoholic beverages and – we didn’t see this coming – cranberries.

It’s another unorthodox way to raise money for a good cause.

Coming at the start of April: Only Fools Fun at Midnight, a 5K run that is an annual tradition.

“Tourism is our industry here,” explains Tim Krolczyk. “We have to be creative.”

Note: The Minocqua-Arbor Vitae-Woodruff Area Chamber of Commerce arranged for one night of lodging at The Beacons of Minocqua and one lunch during this trip, which was offered in conjunction with the fall Midwest Travel Writers Association conference.

For more about the area: www.minocqua.org, 800-44-NORTH.