Beers, beef, and betrayal
Behold meat raffle, a glorious Minnesotan bar ritual that no one ever told me about
Bars: we love them. Not just for the drinks they serve, but for the rituals they foster, the communities they anchor, the ~vibes~ they produce. Just this week, as I was wrapping up a visit to the for-now-thawed tundra of the Upper Midwest, I encountered a glorious, new-to-me bar ritual that our northerly neighbors seem to have been keeping to themselves: meat raffle.
Meat raffle! Meat… raffle? It’s true, Fingers Fam: meat raffle.
Fingers’ senior weed seltzer correspondent and Minneapolis resident Jerard Fagerberg sketched out the (simple, elegant) fundamentals of meat raffle over drinks earlier this week over our first round of festbiers on the patio at Wild Mind Ales, a taproom and production brewery in the city’s southeast quadrant. They are thus:
When you buy a beer, you get a ticket.
Hang onto it, because at some point the bartender is going to start drawing numbers.
If the number they call matches the one on your ticket, guess what: you just won meat raffle.
You have to be present at the drawing to claim your prize—which, again, is meat—which functions as a good reason to keep buying beer, each of which represents an additional chance to win… and so on.
I’m sure there’s some procedural variance, and I’m sure people do this beyond Minnesota’s borders (a friend from western Pennsylvania later told me bar raffles for meat, tools, and even guns are a social staple in his hometown.) But that’s the gist. There’s precious little literature available on the Minnesotan version of this wonderful tradition, but thankfully, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune published a thorough dispatch from inside the juicy world of Minnesota meat raffles back in 2015. Here’s journalist Sharyn Jackson (emphasis mine) in an article titled—you guessed it—“Inside the Juicy World of Minnesota Meat Raffles”:
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.
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.
Beneficent. Bountiful. Brilliant. These are all words that come to mind when I think about meat raffle. And one more: betrayal. I’ve spent nearly half my time on this godforsaken earth in and out of bars in three dozen states (including Minnesota!) and I’ve never even heard of meat raffle. Do I blame myself for this embarrassing, booze-adjacent blindspot? No. I blame all the “Minnesota nice” backstabbers I’ve met over the years who have looked me in the eye, met me with smiles a-plenty, and never said one goddamned word about meat raffle. They know who they are; many are paying Friends of Fingers, in fact, which makes me even more conflicted about swearing them my mortal enemies. And yet: how could they keep mum about meat raffle? How could they do this to me—nay, to us?
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Jerard and I had a couple rounds at Wild Mind before we were joined by Em Cassel of Racket, a worker-owned local news outlet that emerged from the wreckage of the Twin Cities’ alt-weekly after the Star-Trib pulled the plug on it in 2020. She had a couple rounds, too. All of which is to say, by the time they started the drawing, we had almost a dozen tickets between us. “Everybody I’ve taken to meat raffle has won,” Jerard said. We missed the first round by two numbers, and a pound of frozen ground beef went to a middle-aged woman in a cardigan. By the third round, I was convinced Jerard had jinxed us. But then, with a hunk of primo beef fajita strips on the line, the impossible dream came true. Your fearless Fingers editor won meat raffle.
I don’t remember what I did right after realizing that we had the winning ticket, but when I came to, I was sprinting towards the bar, pumping my fists like a junior-league fourth-liner who used his three minutes of total ice time to somehow score the ugliest goal you’ve ever seen. (Minneapolis… hockey… please just go with it.) Of course, being the husky fellow I am, this meant I was breathing kinda heavily when I got to the counter. Sweating a bit, too. This seemed to alarm the bartender a bit, which, understandable. “What’s your name?” she asked, holding the microphone towards me at arm’s length so as to create distance between us.
“I’m Dave,” I said, realizing too late that my mouth was inappropriately close to the mic’s wire-mesh grille. “I’m excited about the meat.”
I returned to the table in a daze. I think there was some applause. The woman in the cardigan gave me the knowing nod of a fellow meat raffle winner as I passed her table. I posed for a photo with my frozen beef in the brewery’s courtyard; the guy behind me thought that was pretty cool.
And then: the moment was over. People returned to their beers and the banalities of their lives. Meat raffle moved on, and so did we. Em was headed to Monday Night RAW at the Xcel Center, and I was flying home the next day with no room for thawing beef in my carry-on. I handed the frozen fajita strips to Jerard, and we said our goodbyes. After they both left, I sat around for a few minutes finishing my final beer. Another middle-aged woman in another middle-aged cardigan walked by, heading for the parking lot. She looked at me and paused. “You’ve never even been to a meat raffle before, have you?”
I told her I hadn’t, which seemed to mildly annoy her. “You son of a gun,” she said, smiling thinly as she unlocked her bike from the rack.
I wanted to tell her that I was but a humble instrument of the meat raffle’s mysterious gods; that hey, at least she lived here and could do meat raffle all the time; that I couldn’t even keep the fajita strips thanks to the strictures of air travel and food safety. But instead, I just laughed and shrugged deferentially, and she rode off.
I’d like to say I learned a valuable lesson on that autumn afternoon in Minneapolis at my first meat raffle. I didn’t. It’s just a low-stakes (-steaks?) way they pass the time in that corner of the country, and I’m glad I got a chance to be a part of it. It might be the afterglow of free beef talking, but I’m even willing to forgive the Minnesotans whose meat-omertà kept me clueless about meat raffle for all these years and beers. Like most bar rituals, it makes a lot more sense to experience than explain. And besides, it’s a game of chance: every interloper worsens your odds at bringing home the bacon.
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