Forget about shopping for a holiday turkey or roast. Instead, enter a meat raffle: You could win a premium product for only a couple bucks, raise funds for charity and have fun in the process.

The holiday season always seems to trigger memories of childhood. For me, Christmas as a kid meant lots of snow shoveling — initially as unpaid labor clearing the sidewalks while my dad shoveled the driveway, and later in middle school as a way to earn a couple bucks to help pay for college.

I’m kidding!

Not one cent of the cash I earned shoveling the neighbors’ driveways ever made it past the corner store’s candy counter.

Of course, wintertime was about more than just battling snowstorms. The cold weather made indoor activities a lot more fun, and maybe that’s why the following story resonated in a way that felt very familiar — only this indoor activity is unlike anything our family ever did to while away the dark days of December.

This story concerns an event called a meat raffle, and takes place in western New York state, less than an hour away from my hometown of North Greece. According to a recent feature story in The Buffalo News, the event is usually a fundraiser, and features all kinds of meat products: racks of ribs, pork tenderloins, chicken cutlets, sausage links and some prime cuts of sirloin.

The story begins at the Queen of Angels Church hall in Lackawanna, a small town just south of Buffalo originally named for the Lackawanna Steel Company (long since departed). “The steaks were piled high in the freezer in the back room,” the newspaper reported, “where nearly 300 people gathered one recent Friday for a meat raffle.”

The raffle ran for 20 rounds, with those in attendance able to buy as many $1 tickets as they wanted, then take their chances.

According to the story, attendees Marge and Frank Skrzypek sat with a stack of dollar bills, determined to win a frozen turkey. They didn’t succeed, but Marge told the reporter that it was still an enjoyable evening.

“We do it for the church,” she said. “For us, it’s a night out.”

Spinning the wheel

These days, meat raffles are a popular night out for a lot of folks in Western New York, according to the newspaper, with as many as 15 different meat raffles in the area scheduled through January.

Meat raffles were initially conducted in pubs in Great Britain, where they were called meat draws. The concept was occasionally done for charity but more often as a stunt to pull in customers to the pub. The practice quickly spread to pubs in Australia and New Zealand, and later took root in the Midwest, particularly in Minnesota and Wisconsin. A generation ago, meat raffles filled veterans’ posts, fire halls and neighborhood taverns with working-class folks looking for a good time, and a good deal.

As the story explained, “The premise is simple: To win meat, you need a ticket. Winning tickets are determined by the spin of a wheel. An average raffle runs 60 spins. That’s 20 rounds, with each round featuring three spins of a four-foot gaming wheel.”

The giant wheel is part of the attraction.

“Having the big wheel gets people way more excited,” Dylan Randall, who organized a recent raffle attended by more than 300 people to benefit a youth baseball league. “It’s becoming crazy,” he said. “Even if people don’t know what a meat raffle is, after you go to one you’re hooked.”

What happens is players bet their stash, and come away empty? According to Randall, it’s not unusual to drop $50 at a raffle and go home meatless.

 Not that most people care.

“A lot of people bring their own snacks and veggie trays,” Gene Nowicki, a Queen of Angels Church trustee told The Buffalo News. “They come in groups and have a lot of fun. It’s like tailgating.”

I’m not sure I’d agree that’s an exact analogy, but from the description, it sure beats shoveling snow. □

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator