Is there anything more Minnesotan than holing up in a bar in the dead of winter and betting money for raw meat? Try wearing shorts while you do it.
You’ll likely find one or two of those hardy, scantily dressed folk among the eager crowds that turn out every night of the week at dive bars and veterans service posts across the state for a good old-fashioned meat raffle.
From La Crescent in the southeast to Roseau way up by the Canada border, it’s a Minnesota pastime to throw down a dollar in the hopes of snagging a shrink-wrapped package of sirloin.
And yet, for every winner who stocks her freezer with repeated winnings from these gatherings, there’s a Minnesota transplant vexed by the name alone. Meat raffle?
So, for anyone who’s wondered if it’s truly possible to have a couple of beers and come home a couple of pounds of pork richer, here’s a guide to what it means to play with your dinner:
What is a meat raffle?
A meat raffle is exactly what it sounds like. It’s also charitable gambling. That means the proceeds go to any number of organizations, from veterans programs to youth soccer teams.
Here’s how it works. Buy a ticket (or two or three), usually at a dollar apiece. There are 30 tickets in a round, and after all of them sell, the meat raffler — often a longtime number caller with a big personality and a microphone — spins the wheel and announces the winning number.
If it’s you? “Come and get your meat” is a common phrase you’ll hear. Just walk up to the caller, show your ticket, and claim your prize.
What do you win?
Out of state visitors ask Juanita Harris that question all the time. Harris spins the wheel at VFW Post 494 in Crystal (5222 Bass Lake Road, 763-537-9914, crystalvfw.com) on Friday evenings. “They ask me, ‘What do I win?’ ” Harris said. “I tell them meat, whatever meat they want.”
The winnings typically come from local butcher shops. Crystal’s VFW gives away cuts from Hackenmueller’s Meat Market in Robbinsdale.
At the Chester Bird American Legion in Golden Valley (200 Lilac Dr., 763-377-4252, chesterbird.org), Laura Itman does the ordering from Nelson’s Meats in St. Louis Park. She likes to switch it up each week and makes sure there’s a variety of options, from bacon-wrapped filet mignon to stuffed hens.
“I think out every single thing I choose,” said Itman, who also schedules bingo at the club.
When and where?
Ben Brausen, a Minneapolis digital marketer, devised a map of the state that points out as many meat raffles as he could find. To make the map, he spent hours calling veterans organizations and bars to confirm dates and times.
“A lot of American Legions don’t have the greatest websites,” he said.
Brausen logged more than 200 of them. And people keep writing to him with more.
“It’s not limited to any one type of bar,” he said.
He has a few favorites: Dusty’s on Fridays (1319 NE. Marshall St. Mpls., 612-378-9831, dustysbaranddagos.com) and one in McGregor, Minn., at Horseshoe Lake Inn.
But now that he’s mapped them all, he hopes to expand his horizons and visit other raffles, maybe even reviewing them for his site. His best win? “I got a package of all kinds of bacon once.”
Do they ever raise the stakes?
For a $5 ticket, some bars give you the chance to take home a cardboard box filled with chops and roasts worth $100 or more. The VFW calls it the “box o’ meat.” At the American Legion, the “colossal” prize is wrapped in white paper like a wedding gift.
Itman makes sure the box is as heavy as can be. “We want it to be a really big deal to get it to their car,” she said.
Is there a strategy to winning?
Harris doesn’t think so. “You’ve just got to pick your number,” she said.
But some of the regulars at the Golden Valley American Legion would disagree.
Karen Birk shows up every week with a pouch full of lucky rocks with holes in them. A woman who would only give her first name, Terry, lays out a tiny figurine of a “lucky llama” on her table.
Barb Olinger, 83, gets to the bar an hour and a half before the raffle starts so she can be sure to get her usual seat. When the raffler comes around with the folded numbered tickets, Olinger always selects three of them.
In between rounds one recent Wednesday, Olinger crocheted potholders, only putting down her hook when the wheel landed on her number, 19. She selected a packet of ground beef and a bonus — raw potatoes.
“Yes, they call me lucky,” she said.
To look or not to look?
Raffler Doug Johnson walked through the American Legion in Golden Valley, selling the tiny tickets. They stood, folded, in grooves on a wooden board Johnson had cut with a table saw just for this purpose.
Whenever he got to Ray Brown’s table, Brown would buy just one ticket and place it facedown on his table without peeking.
Brown, of St. Louis Park, learned about meat raffles when he was a kid: “Mom would make a ham and say, ‘I won it at the Legion.’ ”
Every time Johnson spun the wheel, Brown waited. If someone yelled out that they won, he tossed the ticket without ever looking. If there was silence, he finally took a peek to see if he had a match. “That’s my strategy,” he said.
Can you win too much?
Brown won twice that night and got dubbed a “meat hog.” At other bars, some regulars use harsher words for repeat winners.
“Up North, they chase you out,” said the VFW’s Harris.
Winning streaks, while exciting, come with a measure of shame. “They feel guilty because they won, but they still keep playing,” Harris said.
Deb Ericson of Plymouth won a chuck roast and a bag of jerky on a recent Friday, and got in line to buy into another of the VFW’s 30 continuous rounds.
“You should see our freezers,” she said. “We don’t buy meat at the store.”
While it may be tempting to buy all the tickets in a round for a sure win, don’t do it.
“You don’t want to take away chances other people have,” Brausen explained. “You don’t want to make any enemies.”
As for Brown, who was raking in the meat? “They heckle me all the time,” he said.
Any other tips?
“Make sure you’ve got singles,” Brausen said.
Be nice to your caller. Ericson used to run the meat raffle at the VFW, and “I had I don’t know how many marriage proposals.”
Check out what’s available and play for it till you win — or it’s gone. Jeanne Kirsch of Golden Valley, who won a ham at the Legion, usually plays the first few rounds, and then sits the game out when there’s less to choose from.
At the VFW, Harris rolls out 30 packages of meat on a cart she parks in front of her wheel, and players come up to browse the offerings. One man picked up a few different packets, inspected them, and put them back. When he won a few rounds later, he happily snatched up a steak he’d been eyeing.
And should you have an especially lucky night, “make sure you have enough room in your freezer,” said Christopher Reed, gaming manager at the American Legion.
Finally, the big question: Why?
Truth be told, it’s a mystery. But everyone has a theory on why Minnesotans gamble for meat.
Reed: “It’s better than if you got a gift card or something. You’re actually going home with something you can put in your refrigerator.”
Harris: “Because we’re a grilling state all year round.”
Johnson: “It’s a great way to do your shopping, I’ll tell you that.”
Brown: “People are hungry.”
Ericson: “This is our entertainment.”
Itman: “I think people just like to win stuff.”
For Brausen, the mystery of the meat raffle is part of its allure.
“It’s certainly something that folks from out of state don’t understand,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s a piece of cultural heritage for Minnesotans, but they’ve grasped onto it and decided to expand it and make it their own.”