How to earn your chops Down Under
Heading into a sports club in the Brisbane suburbs for a traditional Australian roast dinner, I was confronted by trays of refrigerated raw meat and asked if I wanted to buy a ticket. The steaks, chops and sausages looked top quality, but the presentation struck a Hong Kong Brit like me as odd, more like a butcher's than a restaurant - and I hadn't seen a menu. But I had been promised a real Aussie night out.
'Do we have to choose our own meat for dinner?' I asked, much to their amusement. Clearly, they said, I had spent too long living in a city where diners regularly selected live seafood from tanks.
The trays of raw meat on ice were the club's nightly raffle prize. Winners walk away with enough prime Australian beef, lamb and sausages to feed a family or friends at a barbecue.
Across Australia, every week you'll find meat tray raffles in sports clubs, traditional pubs and licensed clubs run by the Returned Services League of Australia. RSLs and sports clubs are known for a reasonably priced night out and usually have community sports facilities, a choice of restaurants, bars and the ubiquitous pokies (slot machines).
Chinese politicians might do yum cha, and President Barack Obama might have a beer to show solidarity with grass-roots voters. But when Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard needed to show that she was still in touch with the people, she headed to a local tavern in Newcastle, New South Wales, downed a schooner of beer and bought a ticket for the meat raffle.
At the Arana Leagues Club in Brisbane, where I bought raffle tickets, their meat tray raffles raise thousands of dollars for junior rugby league teams, the netball team and the fishing club.
For A$5 (HK$40) you get six chances to win a meat tray worth A$30 upwards. In Australia that's a lot of quality meat, almost always from a reputable local butcher; it would cost well over HK$1,000 in Hong Kong. It may not be the Mark Six, but the odds of winning are good and everyone who takes part either has won one or knows someone who has won a tray of meaty goodies.
My Brisbane hosts tell me meat tray raffles are found at any local venue where crowds gather to socialise, and drink. Everyone wants to support the kids' sports teams and almost everyone eats meat. For the Aussie bloke on a night out with his mates, the idea of winning a tray and actually bringing home the bacon, instead of getting in trouble with the missus for staying out late at the pub, is especially appealing.
More than a few Australian women have been courted as well as pacified by a tray of raw meat. 'In the late '60s, I was on the receiving end of hundreds of meat trays and turkeys, and many a week we didn't have to buy meat at all,' recalls a former barmaid.
The origins of the meat raffle are found around the middle of the last century. In the second world war, Australia was called upon to export more meat to the Allies. Even in the 'land of plenty', meat was rationed from 1944 to 1948. One theory is that the tradition came from Britain where ration cards were pooled to make a meat tray so at least one family could win and enjoy a 'proper' roast or a few steaks.
Now in her late 80s, Ruth Zander from Bundaburg was in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force during the second world war and didn't see a meat raffle until the late 1950s, when chook [chicken] raffles became popular in pubs. Later, in the '60s and '70s, as the country prospered, huge meat trays became the standard prize in pub and club fund raisers.
Marcus Swetnam from Melbourne says the classic meat tray contains a few giant steaks, some sausages, chops and rissoles (minced meat patties coated in breadcrumbs). Other options he's seen include a breakfast tray (eggs and bacon), surf and turf and, with a nod to more health-conscious times, a fruit tray. 'What about a seafood tray?' I ask. 'Maybe in Sydney,' he snorts.
The Australian media occasionally suggests meat tray raffles are losing popularity but they still appear to be an attention-grabbing marketing tool and a chance to celebrate the country's home-raised produce.
Expat Australians can be found raffling meat trays across the globe - at Australian chambers of commerce in China, cricket clubs in Vietnam and Aussie Rules football clubs in Texas and Boston.
At the end of my night at the Leagues Club, no one in our group had won even one of the four trays being raffled, but they assure me we will the next time.