Meat raffle

Meat raffle winners Bob and Connie Schroedel display their prize at Heartbreakers Bar & Grill.

A vegetarian walks into a bar for the meat raffle and air conditioning. I know it sounds like the start of bad joke, but I recently visited Heartbreakers Bar & Grill to try to win packages of frozen meat on a 97-degree June day.

My husband calls this stretch of Highway OO near our house the “Lake Hallie Strip.” A little less bling than the one in Vegas but entertaining in its own way. Driving north you’ll find Heartbreakers, Hallie Bar, Slim’s Lake Hallie Tavern and Thirsty Badger. Currently two of them advertise weekly meat raffles.

I’ve been a vegetarian on and off since high school. For the last 15 years I’ve eaten mostly a plant-based diet with some seafood, dairy and eggs. I still enjoy cooking fall-off-the-bone pork roast, slow-cooked barbeque ribs, or rare steaks and burgers even if I won’t eat them. I’m also an ex-smoker who will light your cigarette.

Heartbreakers bills itself as a modern-day saloon, thus the signs for “Cowboys” and “Cowgirls” over the restroom doors. Bruce and I don’t have central air at home. Tonight sipping ice cold beer from chilled glasses at a table beside the air conditioner is the first time we’ve stopped sweating for days. “Let’s stay here forever,” Bruce says while we’re waiting for Bob and Connie Schroedel. They live just down the highway and enjoy bars and supper clubs only slightly more than we do. Bob and I are cousins — our mothers were sisters — but the Schroedels are more friends than kin.

A meat raffle is like every raffle: buy a ticket and wait for your number to get called. As a Catholic, I’ve been playing this sort of game since I could hold my own paddle, usually a paint stick with markered-on numbers. At each church picnic I won more cakes or pop bottles than my family could carry.

Meat raffles are a longstanding Wisconsin tradition, from small town VFW halls to big city hipster bars, enjoyed by 90-year-olds to 20-somethings. Turns out WWII-era meat rationing in Britain prompted the first “meat raffles.” People pooled their meager protein supply and some lucky chap won enough for a feast. This concept soon caught on in the United States.

Years ago when Bruce first read “Meat Raffle tonight” on a Highway OO tavern marquee, he thought it was a cool band name. We still laugh about that. Other businesses away from “the strip,” like the Eagle’s Club or Lake Hallie Sportsman’s Club, hold meat raffles for local charities. Eagle’s takes a break June and July; that means for 10 months of the year a winner could bring home the bacon three nights a week just in Lake Hallie alone.

Each time you buy a drink at Heartbreakers on Tuesday after 5 p.m., you get a meat raffle ticket. Where else do the odds of winning increase the more you drink? The raffle begins at 6 p.m. sharp. The second number called is mine. I whoop my way from our table to the bartender to verify my ticket and then whoop some more to the spread of frozen meat. It’s as if my name’s just been called on “The Price is Right,” only tonight it’s not Bob Barker but the 20 or so other patrons who smile patiently while yet another middle-aged contestant screams. I poke through the prizes: a 2-pack of ring bologna or a whole chicken, a bag of cheese curds or beef sticks, pork tenderloin or a rack of ribs.

I settle on a pound of jumbo shrimp. I never won crustaceans before, so of course I hold the frozen bag over my head like a trophy and whoop my way back to our table. We order another round of drinks. Soon Connie’s number is called. We all cheer.

She chooses the ribs. Later Connie teases me, “Think there’s a vegetable raffle somewhere?”

Bruce says, “No one would go.” I would, of course, and you know I’d win something.

A week later Bruce and I visit Slim’s for their 5 p.m. Wednesday meat raffle. I step up to the bar and ask if it’s still on. The bartender says, “As soon as the meat arrives” with the same familial tone as “We’ll eat when Dad gets home.”

Someone tops the pool table with a piece of plywood covered in a painted-on Packers helmet, and by 6 p.m. packages of pork and beef are laid out for the first round. A lavender-haired barmaid yells “Two bucks a line” until all 15 slots are filled on the sign-up sheet. She calls many of the regulars “Baby.” At first Bruce and I feel a bit like outsiders, but after a few drinks we share a common goal with everyone here: win that meat.

Time and again I enter Bruce’s name or mine. The winning number gets revealed pull-tab style. Never ours. The $2 price is steeper than Heartbreakers but the prize is substantially bigger. After each round someone collects a grocery bag of different meats. Some guy named Mike wins twice, and I can’t help but heckle him.

Co-owner Marlene buys me a beer even before she finds out I’m writing about her raffle. She and husband Tim run this “neighborhood institution” on a road designated as part of the Historic National Automobile Route — the Yellowstone Trail. This stretch has been called Highway 53 then J; now it’s OO or Joles Avenue.

Slim’s has changed hands many times since it was built in the 1940s, but its name has remained. When I first used to come here, 30-some years ago, it was Slim’s Saddle Bar and stools were topped with real saddles. Today it still has the same vibe: grab your drink and settle in for fun. Now dudes in biker vests and bandanas are more common than dudes in Western shirts and cowboy boots. The corner chalkboard message, “Lisa says Never too told to Rock-n-Roll,” could have been written in 1972 or last week.

Soon the barmaid announces a grand finale. The “Big Kahuna” features $150 worth of meat and cheese. I have a good feeling about this one and buy both Bruce and me a $3 ticket. We lose again, though I win one of the consolation prizes: a plastic shot glass with an X on the bottom to be redeemed for a free drink. As if I need that to bring me back.