Two new books pay homage to supper club sizzle

Photo by Ron Faiola.
Photo by Ron Faiola.

Unusual ingredients, recipes, meals and food traditions are at the core of what defines culture all around the globe. That includes what we take for granted about Wisconsin cooking and customs.

Everybody eats, a lot of us enjoy talking about food and online sites such as hint at the passion we have to photograph culinary excellence and treat it as art. We crave memorable dining experiences.

No shortage of attention is paid to our supper clubs, which I’ve written about numerous times and ways. Now two new books about supper clubs are on the market, and both teach me even more about our quirky heritage.

Each author approaches the topic in a different manner, so that means a lot less overlap than you’d expect. I’m making room for both books on my already-crowded shelves.

Newest on the market is “The Supper Club Book: A Celebration of a Midwest Tradition” ($26.95, Chicago Review Press) by Dave Hoekstra, a longtime reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. What would a Flatlander know about this Heartland tradition? Plenty, especially since he looks way beyond the menus.

This writer, who is proud of his blue-collar roots, uses the supper club as a springboard for fascinating essays about sense of place and supper club people. He interviews a blind dishwasher at Smoky’s Club in Madison, chronicles the devotion of the late Ed Thompson (ex-governor Tommy’s brother) to Mr. Ed’s Tee Pee Supper Club in Tomah and finds a Stephen King connection with the chef at Sullivan’s Supper Club, on the Mississippi River near Trempealau.

That’s just for starters. All these little backstories are what make the book precious and, as time goes on, of historical significance.

Hoekstra quotes Robert Gard, whose “Wisconsin Idea” work helped the arts gain respect in rural areas: “No place is a place until things are remembered.”

Garrison Keillor of “A Prairie Home Companion,” in the book’s foreword, wryly writes of suppers clubs as a worthwhile escape from daily routines: “A nice place where decent people can eat good enough food with whomever they like and if they want to have a snort, that’s okay … Freedom of association and of expression were what you needed a supper club for. It certainly wasn’t the meatloaf.”

Only 24 supper clubs make the cut in this book, and most alarming to supper club devotees might be the fact that Hoekstra didn’t limit his research to Wisconsin. We’d like to think we own the supper-club culture, but the author also finds this depth of passion in Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and Michigan.

Consider Cozy Cossette at Jax Cafe in Minneapolis. She still typesets matchbooks, by hand, for at least 20,000 guests per year. This personal touch in service, which began in the 1960s, is but one reason why “cafe” means “supper club” here.

Hoekstra will sign copies of “The Supper Club Book” on June 19 at Smoky’s, 3005 University Ave., Madison; June 28 at Wally’s House of Embers, 935 Wisconsin Dells Parkway, Wisconsin Dells; and July 20 at Sister Bay Bowl, 10640 N. Bay Shore Dr., Sister Bay. Times will be announced later.

Also new this spring is “Wisconsin Supper Club: An Old-Fashioned Experience” ($35, Agate Midway) by Ron Faiola of Milwaukee. The fun coffeetable book reveals the sizzle, warmth and rural-retro feel of 50 classic Badger dining spots.

Inside are excellent reasons to plan a road trip to Milton (Buckhorn Supper Club), Stoddard (Rocky’s), Bonduel (Antlers) and beyond. Like the author’s previous project – a supper club documentary that appeared on public television stations nationwide – this new book freezes in time a precious part of Wisconsin heritage.

The familiar – neon HobNob signage, between Racine and Kenosha; scenic views at Ishnala, in Mirror Lake State Park – is in plentiful supply here. Food specialties – heaping plates of perch to prime rib, cool relish trays and hot popovers – are the stars.

Luscious photographs work up an appetite to visit. Little “My Take” stories, sprinkled throughout, are mini reviews of supper club meals.

“I had two unusual dining experiences,” Faiola notes. “The first was eating cooked chicken gizzards for the first time. They didn’t appeal to me, but I had to try them.

“The second was having fried turtle, which was a large snapping turtle freshly caught in the Mississippi River. It was very good and tasted somewhat like the dark meat on a turkey.”

Best, to me, are the supper club stories from communities that likely would not be noticed by travelers for other reasons. Example: Dreamland Supper Club, South Range (near Superior) had a Chinese food menu in the 1930s. Now specials include deep-fried turkey breast.

On my go-to list, thanks to this book: Washington Inn Supper Club, Cecil (overlooking Shawano Lake). It was a brothel and gambling site in the late 1800s. Today it’s known for tenderloins stuffed with bacon and mozzarella cheese, plus a ghost that makes lights go out and drinks disappear.

Or may that’s just the consequences of a little too much Double Bubble?

Faiola will talk about “Wisconsin Supper Club” at a 7 p.m. June 6 supper club dinner at L. Woods Tap and Pine Lodge, 7110 N. Lincoln Ave., Lincolnwood, Ill.

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