For better or worse, there is a vibrant drinking culture in Wisconsin. Beer, brandy old fashioneds, the Milwaukee Brewers -- these things are celebrated throughout this state. But in Madison, ask a person about paddles, and you'll hear every kind of guess, from seafaring to frat pledging, except for the right one: the beer tent game.
I'm a product of the Fox River Valley, and my mother was raised in one of those big Catholic families that, well, Catholic families are so well known for. As a result, parish picnics were a regular social event every summer. Over the years, it's been Sacred Heart, or St. Bernadette's, or St. Pius X, all in Appleton.
In basically every Fox Valley parish picnic, there's a beer tent. And in nearly every one of those beer tents, there's a person sitting atop a towering pile of 12-packs of Miller and Budweiser -- or sometimes on a refrigerator truck -- manning a numbered wheel like something out of a backyard Wheel of Fortune.
Lining the makeshift wooden bar, people wait, numbered rectangular paddles in hand. Throughout the night, the bartender occasionally signals the wheel to spin, the paddles are ceremonially clacked against the chipped, dented bar top, and then the wheel stops. Sometimes, it just starts all over again. Other times, someone with the winning number hoots, and a 12-pack finds a new home.
The game is basically roulette, with a superficial auction house flourish. It's a great way to waste an evening, since each spin only costs a dollar to participate, and there's nothing quite like the incandescent warmth of a bustling beer tent on a summer night. A burger, a beer and the chance to win more -- Catholic or not, it's pretty great. So why doesn't Madison seem to know about it?
It's no shocker that the Green Bay and Milwaukee areas have the greatest demographic percentage of Catholics, at 37% and 32%, according to church statistics published on Catholic-Hierarchy.org. These are the regions originally populated in large part by Catholic immigrants. And indeed, one of only two hits for beer tent paddle roulette I could find online was from a 1988 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story by Duane Dudek. (We spoke about it, and he indicated he couldn't find much more information, either.)
Of course, there are plenty of Catholics in Madison, too. I visited the St. Dennis parish festival in late July, hopeful to find some paddles. I found children's games, music, big crowds and the beer tent. I even spotted someone wearing Google Glasses, odds of which I'd have placed at somewhere just north of nil. But no paddles. So I asked around.
"I've been here for years. No paddles," replied one older parishioner definitively as he worked the beer tent. Another beer server was a little warmer: "We used to do it, years ago, I don't know. There was something to do with a raffle license." Ah, this is more like it. "I'll bring it up," he tells me. "I'm on the finance committee."
I talked to a woman working the entrance to the beer tent area, who didn't think they'd ever done it. "Maybe it has to do with getting a permit for it," she speculated.
"I don't think that's illegal," said a police officer standing near the entrance. "It's probably no different than a beer raffle."
Ultimately, there was probably no one better to speak to on the charms of paddles than my mom, Barb Dorzweiler. She's the one who took me to my first parish picnic, when I was but a wee bairn. Her description of the game's appeal verges on mystical, which may not thrill parish organizers.
"The noise is what's fun about it. It's really obnoxious. It's like you're giving encouragement to the wheel to stop at your number. The louder you paddle, the more encouragement you're sending over to that wheel."
She told me about an Appleton parish that switched from paddles to paint sticks, in fact, due to noise complaints. "It's kind of like a golf clap," she said with a laugh.
I'm not Catholic, but I don't mind putting a few coins in the plate to be able to play paddles with friends and family on a summer night. That it's crappy beer on the line is no issue; my brats need something to boil in, after all. So the hunt continues, through this summer and into the next, to find that perfect Madison beer tent -- the one making all the noise.
Do you know of a parish picnic that still pulls out the paddles for the beer tent game? Let us know at email@example.com.