Minnesota traditions aren’t limited to Minnesota

By : 
Dr. Jan Meyer
The Biker's Diary

Who would ever have thought that things we take for granted in southeastern Minnesota are actually “great Minnesota traditions?” That line was part of an article’s title about meat raffles in Minnesota (Star Tribune, Feb. 20, 2019). I saved it to read on another day.

Then this last week, there was an article about fish fries, stating that “the season is in full swing, although for some restaurants, the ritual is a year-round occasion” (Star Tribune April 7, 2019). That was actually more of a list of the best places to get fish fries, but it reminded me of the meat raffles, and I decided to explore both of these local happenings.

I discovered that fish fries are believed to have been popular first in Wisconsin and they’re traditionally on Fridays. Evidently the roots are in that state’s Germanic culture, started by the Catholics of German, Polish and other immigrants whose religion forbade eating meat on Fridays. The practice apparently gained steam and wider following because of the economics of the 1920s and 1930s, when, during the depression and its aftermath, fish was an inexpensive alternative to meat in people’s diets. It was also affected by the depression, when taverns could not sell alcoholic beverages and so the fish fries brought people and money in the door anyway. One fish fry writer did add that beer is the favored beverage to accompany a fish fry meal.

Several fish fry historians have weighed in on the issue of whether banning meat on certain days was for a religious reason or an economic one. Some have said it came about because a long-ago Pope made a secret agreement with the downturn in the fishing industry. If he banned meat on some days, it would boost fish sales. Making it a ban for religious reasons would carry more clout.

Evidently the days of no meat expanded quickly, so much so that Henry VIII, when he declared himself the head of the Church of England, banned all bans, so to speak. The fishing industry in England declined so much that when his son became king, at least fish on Fridays for England was reinstated.

Websites are devoted to fish fry calendars, such as the one kept by the Catholic Church’s Archdiocese of Louisville. Public radio’s online publication, “The Salt,” included an article in 2012 titled “Lust, Lies and Empire: the Fish Tale Behind Eating Fish on Fridays.” The Star Tribune article’s calendar is now in my eating-out file; I have marked the ones I’m going to try. In the meantime, in southeastern Minnesota no one has to travel very far to partake in flaky, batter-fried fish, along with a beer. At least “in season.”

Then I dug up that first article, “A how-to guide for playing —and winning — at a great Minnesota tradition: the meat raffle.” The lead question was, “Is there anything more Minnesotan than holing up in a bar in the dead of winter and betting money for raw meat?” and calling it “a good old-fashioned meat raffle.”

What followed was a bunch of examples of meat raffle behavior, along with some do’s and don’ts, such as “be kind to your meat raffler…(who is) often a longtime numbers caller with a big personality and a microphone.”

Participants have to be prepared for some joshing. One man said that in one evening he won two turkeys, a ham, a package of hot dogs and two pounds of bacon. This wasn’t the only time he’d been “cussed out by someone’s grandmother.” Someone said “Up North,” they chase you out. And so typical of us Minnesotans who feel guilty for the weather in Wisconsin, some have a hard time with winning. “They feel guilty when they win, but they still keep playing.”

When I turned to discovering the history of meat raffles, the first thing I found was from Australia, a woman who blogs about the topic. She said it originated in Britain during the two World Wars. Before the start of World War II, the United Kingdom imported 50% of the food it needed: 20 million tons. It became the Axis’s strategy to try to starve England into submission, so German submarines sank the ships carrying food to the islands. Obviously, food was in short supply, and holding a meat raffle meant that families could pool their rations and the winner would take away enough to feed that family.

When that need was no longer as great, the meat raffles became a way to raise money for charities: after expenses, all of the proceeds must go to charity. People also point out that, like the fish fries, meat raffles help develop a sense of community because attendees are usually repeat customers. And then it spread to the U.S. Eric Hansen of Buffalo, N.Y., who manages the meatraffles.com website, said they are “terrific things, being able to spend time with friends and family, having a few bowls of loud-mouth soup (beer), scratching the gambling itch, and providing money to a good cause.”

It’s a bargain for the customers: if you win, you get a little over $20 of meat for one dollar. The host establishments don’t make money from the raffles; instead, the increased bar sales, great publicity, and community goodwill are the payoffs for the bar. In Minneapolis, it is reported that on meat raffle nights, the host bar sees a 25% increase in sales. It seems it is a win-win situation, and not really a gamble at all.

Thinking about these Minnesota “cultural traditions,” or rituals, led to considering another: krub, also known as klub or blood sausage. It’s also a tradition in Minnesota, though not as well known and certainly not written about in newspapers. But that search can wait.