A wheel clack-clack-clacks and the numbers blur. More slowly now — clack, clack, clack — the numbers separate so you can find yours and follow it. Almost, maybe, just a little farther, you hope, you cross your fingers, you try to nudge the wheel with your mind. Finally, the last clack, maybe one more, and the wheel stops on a winning slot between 1 and 30.
Somewhere in the bar, somebody holds the tiny white square with the matching number.
“Come up,” yells the caller, “and pick your meat.”
The meat raffle: a quintessential Minnesotan bar tradition that plays out every night of the week in one working-class neighborhood’s watering hole or another. Though its origins are unknown, its existence is as homegrown as tater tot hot dish. Buy a ticket for a dollar — the proceeds go to charity — and get a chance to win a shrink-wrapped packet of raw, pink flesh from a table at the back of the bar.
“What’s not to like?” said Tina Nelson, a regular at the Knight Cap, a northeast Minneapolis tavern that holds meat raffles twice a week. “It’s free meat!”
Along with pulltabs and bingo, meat raffles are a popular, almost expected form of recreation in bars, as well as fraternal and veterans’ clubs like the Eagles and American Legion. They are part of Minnesota’s $1.2 billion charitable gambling industry, one of the largest in the nation.
“Gambling is an ingrained part of the culture in Minnesota,” said Gary Danger, compliance officer for the state Gambling Control Board.
And meat raffles’ stake in that culture is only growing. While charitable gambling as a whole is only starting to rebound from a flattening during the recession, meat raffles have soared over the past seven years, Danger said. Once only found in rural areas, they are now happening all over the metro area, from dive bars to hipster haunts.
Even high-end establishments have gotten in on the action. Haute Dish, the North Loop’s fancy/ironic take on Upper Midwest cuisine, held a weekly meat raffle for about six months.
“You weren’t getting your typical pot roast,” said chef Landon Schoenefeld. “We were doing rib-eyes we trimmed down, or maybe a pack of homemade sausages.”
Ask anyone who grew up with a meat raffle why they do it, and you’ll usually get a common-sense answer.
“Who doesn’t like a good meat raffle?” Schoenefeld said.
Kiem Engelen of St. Louis Park is a meat-raffle die-hard. She and her husband hit a different one every night. They even went to a meat raffle on one of their first dates. Her husband wants to see someone invent an app that helps people locate the day’s meat raffles.
“We have 2½ freezers,” Engelen said.
On Tuesdays, you’ll find them at the Knight Cap, where self-proclaimed “meat wench” Kim Cousins calls out the winning numbers in a singsong smoker’s rasp. On the table: boneless top round, pork chops, maple sausage and a packet of filet mignons, all from Hackenmueller Meats in Robbinsdale. The bacon was already snatched up.
“Number seventeen!” Cousins bellows.
Everyone at Engelen’s table groans. It isn’t their lucky night. The winner this round comes up to claim her fifth paper bag full of meat.
Some say meat raffles all began in this or that Northeast bar, but most believe it sprung up in rural areas shortly after World War II.
In fact, charitable gambling was legalized in Minnesota in 1945, but didn’t extend to raffles until the 1980s. Still, meat raffles were a part of many Minnesotans’ childhoods.
“That frozen chunk of meat thing probably comes from a farmhouse past,” said Amy Thielen, Food Network host of “Heartland Table” and author of “The New Midwestern Table.”
She added: “It’s a kind of currency.”
Meat from Thielen’s family’s butcher shop (Thielen Meats) in the small Minnesota town of Pierz has been on offer at meat raffles for as long as she can remember. She’ll still go to raffles in Nevis, Minn., with her aunt, who gets dressed up for the occasion.
“I’m like, ‘Why are you putting curlers in your hair?’ and she’s like, ‘Amy, we’re going to the meat raffle!’ ” Thielen said.
Though played year-round, meat raffles are a form of entertainment that gets people out of their homes during the long, cold months.
“It’s the way we get through the winter,” said Mike Cashman, who plays often in the Brainerd area, and drove down to Minneapolis for the raffle/bingo combo at the Knight Cap.
Plus, winners can keep their bounty chilled just by leaving it in the car.
Betting on creativity
Most meat raffles are not actually raffles, but paddle wheels — games determined by a spinning wheel of chance. Some bars do drawings and others use another device called a tipboard. Minnesotans spent around $32 million on these types of games in fiscal year 2014, netting $10 million for charities.
Compared with a juggernaut like pulltabs, which brought in profits of $183.7 million last year, meat raffles “are not a big moneymaker,” Danger said. “But it’s good entertainment and a good trade stimulant for the bar owner.”
Gambling to benefit charity is a concept that dates to the 1920s in the United States, said David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
“It’s basically saying people want to gamble and let’s channel that in a way that’s socially beneficial,” he said.
When it comes to meat raffles, Schwartz said the small-scale, grass-roots nature of charitable gambling may have contributed to such an original concept. (We can even boast of meat raffles being replicated in other small pockets of the country.)
“People get very creative when it comes to gambling, and for this to thrive it helps if you don’t have a huge commercial industry,” Schwartz said. “If all you do is go to the local casino and play slots, you’re probably not going to come up with all these creative ways to do it.”
Creativity continues to abound in Minnesota when it comes to gaming. It’s legal to bet your money on everything from where a cow’s droppings land to when a rubber duck crosses a finish line in a moving body of water.
Grumpy’s Northeast has spun the meat raffle on its head by merging it with another popular bar game. Instead of cash or gift cards, at T-Bone Bingo winners get — you guessed it — T-bone steaks. And why not? “It’s dinner, it’s free, no one’s going to say no to that,” said Liz Schreiber, the caller.
The game, which is raunchy with meaty innuendos, is also vegetarian-friendly; non-meat-eaters can select drink tickets for their prizes. There’s also a “Price Is Right”-type challenge where contestants guess the price of a meat accessory. (On a recent Sunday, it was a Fleet Farm sausage stuffer.) The scene is younger than what you’ll find at the local VFW.
But Henry Murray, 13, may be the youngest local meat-raffle enthusiast. His mother, Tracy, picks him up from school and brings him along with her to the Knight Cap every week.
“It’s our Tuesday,” Tracy Murray said. “If we win, we plan our meal around it.”
Henry’s affinity for meat is in his blood. He said his great-grandfather founded Murray’s Steakhouse, a downtown institution.
Sitting at a high table in the shamrock-bedecked Knight Cap — fish tank behind the bar and “Wheel of Fortune” playing on the TVs — Henry sipped a Coke from a plastic cup. What does he like about the weekly ritual?
“Winning,” he said plainly. “Meat.”
In front of him, his mother’s pile of discarded raffle tickets and losing pulltabs grew.
“You guys wanna do one more?” Cousins asked as she held out a plastic box full of the little white numbers.
“Yeah,” said Henry, “and call my number this time.”
Another spin, another clack, clack, clack, and another groan. Henry dropped his head into his hands.