At least 30 years have passed since my husband and I walked into a small-town tavern one wintry morning, in search of a beer and respite before a holiday visit with family.
We were surprised to find the little bar packed and lively, but it didn’t take long to learn why. Moving from barstool to barstool was a guy with something to sell:
“You want to throw in a quarter for this summer sausage or a six-pack?”
I want to say the change was tossed into a coffee can or cigar box, but maybe that’s where tickets – each matching the number of one purchased – were tossed. Or maybe we got a little wooden paddle instead of a ticket.
The holder of the winning number got first crack at the prizes. The next number pulled was for the leftover. Then the process was repeated, again and again, until the stash of merchandise was gone.
“It’s a quarter for a pack of brats, brick of cheese or pint of brandy.” “This one’s 50 cents, for a chance at a couple of steaks or a pot roast.”
I’m making up combos and prices, because it never dawned on me to document the experience with a notebook or camera – but one sure thing is that the spirit of the game engaged the entire bar at an otherwise slow time of business.
The randomness and sometimes absurd product pairings amused us. It was cheap entertainment while quaffing a cold one, and a quick way to temporarily feel connected to this farm community.
The tavern – in Greenbush, Sheboygan County – closed long ago and my marriage only lasted 11 years, but the tradition of meat raffles (especially during winter) prevails. Especially in rural areas and working-class neighborhoods. Not just in Wisconsin, but as far away as Australia.
A Wisconsin meat raffle is supposed to raise money for a charity. A few still involve the spin of a wheel and distribution of wooden paddles. Others use double-roll tickets (one for the buyer, one for the raffle pool).
Meat raffle history is not well documented but anecdotally associated with World War II and meat rationing, from Britain to the United States. With a small investment and good luck, an average family could gain a special meal during lean times.
“Since the 1940s, they have mainly attracted older generations,” writes Natalie Zarrelli at AtlasObscura.com. “But now, there’s a youthful meat raffle resurgence in churches, dive bars and veterans’ clubs across America.”
Here are quick takes of what happens in Wisconsin.
Shortly before 10:30 a.m. on a Sunday, Jerome “Chub” Vinney is covering a bumper pool table with a checked tablecloth, then packages of pork tenderloin, sausage, chicken, sliced beef, cheese and more.
The 78-year-old was raised upstairs from this basement business, Dot’s Tavern, which opened in unincorporated Basco in 1948, after fire destroyed his grandparents’ tavern across the street. Today Dot’s is the only business in a town that the Ice Age National Scenic Trail cuts through.
We are 15 miles south of Madison, and all seats at the dive bar – concrete floor, low ceiling – are occupied before the monthly meat raffle begins. On each of 12 paint paddles is a number, which means no more than 12 people play at a time.
Customers – retirees to young adults – banter and joke. “Let ’er rip,” the bartender says, when the final paddle is sold for $1. A bottlenecked container is shaken, and out pops one number on a dice-like cube. The winner takes her choice from the table and paddles are collected, only to be redistributed for round two.
When the tabletop is empty, a few more expensive items – a ham, couple of steaks, bag of frozen chicken breasts – appear, and the paddle price jumps to $2 per chance.
That’s when I get lucky, and I happily pick up two pounds of jumbo shrimp, cooked and frozen.
Meat raffles are 10:30 a.m. to noon on the first Sunday at Dot’s. https://bit.ly/3cIzlm3
The crowd is boisterous when we get to Dicken’s Grille and Spirits, West Allis, at 3 p.m. on a Saturday. It’s standing room only: Empty barstools belong to folks catching a smoke outdoors, before the last round of meat raffling begins.
It seems too hard to catch the busy bartender’s attention, so we opt to linger near a wall until two seats at a four-top open. My buddy and I buy $10 in tickets and make small talk with tablemates as a little metal cage with tickets spins while cranked.
There’s no choosing: All know exactly what each winning ticketholder gets, and one round will have several winners. One table seems to win ’most everything – bacon, steaks, liquor. Then comes this: “OK, here we have the last tenderloin and a nice bottle of wine.”
The winning number? Mine, and our foursome whoops. The $31 beef tenderloin is vacuum-sealed and from Pick ‘n’ Save. The bottle of red is a California blend that I would later classify as semi dry and lovely.
“Want to trade that for a bunch of shrimp,” asked an amiable stranger, and that type of casual negotiation was not uncommon as customers rounded up their winnings to head home.
Meats raffles at Dicken’s are 6-7:30 p.m. on the first Wednesday of the month and 2-3:30 p.m. on the third Saturday. dickensgrille.com
Island Bar and Grill is on the Rock River near Lake Koshkonong and Fort Atkinson. The greeter is a snowman with Hawaiian shirt, straw hat and can of Busch beer tucked near a pair of stick arms.
We order lunch shortly before the weekly Sunday meat raffle begins at 1:30 p.m. and seem a little isolated in the dining area. A hospitable waitress helps us feel at home and says the raffles end in mid spring, as weather warms and customers get more concerned about how to keep winnings cold.
Although it costs only $2 per round to participate, fewer items are raffled than at Dicken’s. We leave as well-fed losers but notice an odd parallel between this bar and Dicken’s:
The last ticket pull is for a curious prize: a big plastic container of cheeseballs. As in the orange, stain-your-fingers, melt-in-your-mouth junk food.
The crowd, at both places, hoots as the consolation prize is announced. My friend and I exchange quizzical looks. Just a coincidence? Perhaps, or maybe it’s a little mystery to be solved at another time. islandcampground.com
Coming up fast: The Surley Sunday Funday Meat Raffle at Jordan’s Big 10 Pub, Madison, a 1-3 p.m. March 8 fundraiser. All raffle proceeds benefit Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin.
Meat comes from Knoche’s Old Fashioned Butcher Shop. It’s $1 off taps from Surly Brewing Company, Minneapolis. big10pub.com
Are meat raffles legal in Wisconsin? From the state Office of Charitable Gaming’s website:
“Any activity that involves the elements of prize, chance and consideration is illegal except for bingos and raffles conducted by charitable organizations that possess a Wisconsin charitable gaming license. Conducting unlicensed bingo or meat raffles can subject the event holder to criminal penalties, and any proceeds and ‘prizes’ can be seized by law enforcement as contraband.”
The state annually licenses about 7,500 raffle organizations that hold more than 10,500 active raffle licenses.
A bill to include paddlewheel raffles under Class B raffle licenses was vetoed this month by Gov. Tony Evers.