Thursday, February 13, 2014


Every region of the world has its initiation rituals that are part of the process necessary to become worthy of calling one a member of that particular tribe. Some of these rituals are perhaps a little tougher than others like the boys of the Mandan Indian tribe who have skewers drilled their chest muscles and are then hung from the ceiling until they pass out. If that isn't enough once they wake they need to slice off their little fingers on both hands and parade around the village with their bloody stumps. The Wisconsin initiation ritual is less painful but does require a certain amount of self-induced inebriation to accomplish. It's called the Meat Raffle.
Some of these Wisconsin specific rites of passage are held in the evening and some in the afternoon in low-lit dens with names like The Drunk Driving Warrior or Hooligan's Super Bar. Our initiation was at the Villa Tap, a much tamer named tavern but located on Packers Avenue down the road from the Oscar Mayer plant.
It was a snowy Saturday in the late afternoon. My little sister was having a birthday party for her new husband and sent out text messages to meet them there at three. I really think she never thought we'd show up and we almost didn't. Rick was white knuckling it all the way there. His Georgia roots come out every time we need to get in a car and there's a trace of snow on the ground. It requires I leave a minimum of a football field between us and any other car fore or rear. I did the best I could and he managed to not hyperventilate or loose his lunch prior to arrival.
The parking lot behind the bar was almost full which is not too unusual for a Wisconsin bar at three in the afternoon. Since we had made the journey and safely arrived we saw no other alternative then to hustle out into the freezing afternoon and into the comfort of the heated bar. From the near whiteout of the snow covered parking lot it took a second for my eyes to adjust to the cavern within. Multi-colored mini-lights encircled a rectangular bar filled two deep with a mix of middle-aged couples wearing Wisconsin Badger or Green Bay Packer sweat clothes, flannel shirted workmen just off their shifts at the Oscar Mayer plant and Birthday party guests all yammering in voices choked and strained from trying to be heard over a mix of country music and eighties pop blaring out of the juke box that also doubled as a photo booth where you could punch in a tune and put your picture up on the screen all at the same time.
As my eyes began to adjust, I saw that the big man behind the bar was being handed a token by a burly line worker nursing a rum and Coke. The burly guy had pulled the token out of a velvet Royal Crown bag the big guy had been holding. Once he had the token the big guy yelled out, "7". A woman seated at the bar almost fell off her stool as she thrust a paddle with the number seven stenciled on it into the air and squealed out, "Those five pounds of lean red meat are mine" and then burst into peels of husky laughter. This, we learned, is how a Wisconsin meat raffle works, lots of squeals, lots of meat and a lot of liquor.
I had heard about meat raffles but only in a peripheral sense that allowed my imagination to go wild with an unsubstantiated definition. I fantasized a group of tank-topped tattooed women vying with a bunch of macho beer-gutted inebriated rambos fighting it out for some outdated tainted meat. I could smell the stench of putrefaction as some sort of bidding war was fought among these desperate combatants willing to pay discounted prices for hamburger two steps away from dumpster. Boy was I wrong.
Here's how it really works. Bars and religious organizations, sometimes-indistinguishable one from the other, purchase a mix of meats from very reputable butchers. There ain't no tainted meat here. The ritual at the Villa Tap was to break the bulk order into parcels that became the prizes for each drawing. Each drawing was limited to sixteen participants and this ran around the bar so a different group of inebriants had a chance at a mega slab of meat each time the hand reached into the bag of tokens and drew out the winning number. You paid a dollar for a paddle and a chance to win. The paddles were kept number down in a metal pail so you couldn't see the number you were picking. Anticipation reached out and grabbed each chubby hand as it sunk into the pail and pulled out what one hoped would be the lucky number. The odds were one in sixteen against you but then we've always believed in  beginners luck. So with that in mind when it was our turn Rick and I both ponied up our buck a piece. I drew number eleven and Rick drew number twelve. It's the responsibility of the previous winner to draw the winning number for the subsequent drawing. The lean red meat lady stuffed her hand in the bag of tokens and handed the coin to the man behind the bar. "Twelve" he yelled out. It took Rick a second to realize he had the winning paddle but then up went his arm with the number twelve paddle waving in the air. We were having steak for dinner.
The meat part of the raffle ended with a two-dollar entry fee for a chance at five pounds of select bacon. Who can devour five pounds of bacon is beyond me although Wisconsin is known for an abundance of tractor butt. Our luck had run out but then maybe not winning five pounds of select bacon might be considered winning in the weight gain game.
What happens after that is something a bit unexpected. After all the meats have been doled out there's a last bit of excitement with a fifty-fifty raffle. This one touts a five-buck entry fee. Everyone is welcome to put in as much as they want. The winner walks away with half the take and the other half goes to a different charity every week. We may be a bunch of lushes here where the winter temperature tends to hover around zero but our hearts never freeze in a bar where charity is as important as a fifeteen pound box of Oscar Mayer wieners.

Glory Days, La Crosse, 2011
Carl Corey, photographer
From his book, Tavern League

1 comment:

  1. I never have trouble picturing you in Manhattan; but a meat raffle!!