A Cultural Icon: Wisconsin Supper Clubs
Throughout Wisconsin, there are approximately 260 supper clubs…give or take. The number is frequently changing because the clubs change hands and/or close and re-open again later. The restaurant business is fluid and subject to change. Our neighbor to the west, Minnesota, also has supper clubs….but not nearly as prevalent or pervasive on the landscape as Wisconsin.
So herein begs the question that keeps on popping up: “So what is a Supper Club, anyway?…just another restaurant? Oh Nooooo! Don’t speak of such blasemphy. It is hard to explain, and I had this discussion with my son. We discussed the history of prohibition, the establishment of the speak- easy and how supper clubs, to some extent anyway fit in that part of history. I believe that you just have to experience supper club dining to appreciate them and to know the difference. My son and I did however come to the conclusion that: “A Supper club is a restaurant, but not every restaurant qualifies as a supper club.” Kind of simplistic in nature, but I think it helps to drive the point home: Supper Clubs are in a category of their own.
I was prompted to write about the uniqueness of Wisconsin supper clubs after attending a fund raiser dinner and presentation by our local historical society: The Polk County Historical Society. The event was entitled: Celebrate Wisconsin Supper Clubs and celebrate I did! I really enjoyed learning about the diversity and amazing history behind this fabric that makes up the Wisconsin landscapes and in many ways is the pride of many a Wisconsinite. The two presenters at the event helped to expand those definitions and help to explain what makes a supper club a supper club?…and not just another restaurant?
Mary Bergin, a Midwest features writer, discussed the inspirations that led her to publish a cookbook of over 60 recipes from 40 different supper clubs. Mary is the author of several books, many of which focus on adventures in Wisconsin. The cookbook she published is entitled: “Wisconsin Supper Club Cookbook”. The book includes not only tasty recipes, but also interesting tidbits of historical content about particular clubs and why loyal customers help to create each supper club as a local treasure. She explained that the popularity of the supper club has sustained because of their predictability; you know you can expect great service and food when you walk through the door. That predictability gives them lasting quality. Some may call it “stuck in a rut”, but others view it as the comfort of tradition. Her books are currently available on Amazon and you can follow Mary on some of her adventures at: www.roadstraveled.com
Holly L. DeRuyter, a documentary filmmaker, presented her video entitled: “Old Fashioned-The Story of the Wisconsin Supper Club”. The film took a delightful tour of several clubs at locations throughout the state and portrayed why these iconic clubs have remained popular and a staple in many Wisconsin communities. The video not only highlighted the supper club “culture”, but also helped the viewer to grapple with the continuing question of how a supper club differs from a restaurant. The supper club patron is welcomed to a slower pace where one can relax and connect with family and friends. One of the club owners summed it up well by stating: “ Dine Leisurely, Dine Well.” Most supper clubs are in rural places and usually open for dinner only. The supper club includes a bar and a separate dining room. Even after prohibition was repealed, many women felt uncomfortable going to a tavern for a drink. (Some taverns were considered “seedy” and not the place for a lady…) However, women felt more comfortable having drinks if the bar was located inside a supper club. This helped to make all the patrons feel comfortable for both eating and having cocktails together. For more information on Holly’s film, you can check out her web site at: http://OldFashionedTheMovie.com
Speaking of cocktails, the classic cocktail of the supper club is the Old Fashioned. The drink itself dates back to the 1700’s, but was revived during the Prohibition days. With the preponderance of “rot gut liquors” and “bathtub gin”, these tonics were made more palatable with the addition of fruit slices and/or cherries to garnish the drink. A taste for something sweet just evolved the Old Fashioned into a staple cocktail at many of the supper clubs.
Another staple of the supper club is the Friday Night Fish Fry. Wisconsin is the perfect place for the popularity and success of a Friday Night Fish Fry. First, the fact that Wisconsin has 15,074 lakes filled with delicious perch, walleye and trout to provide an abundance of fresh and local fare. Second, there are many religions that abstain from eating meat on Fridays, so the Friday Night Fish Fry quickly became a family tradition for many Wisconsin families.
When I first moved to Wisconsin, my realtor gave us a wonderful gift to welcome us to Wisconsin: a book about Wisconsin Supper Clubs. It is entitled: Wisconsin Supper Clubs, An Old Fashioned Experience by Ron Faiola. It became a great resource and also soon evolved into a journal for documenting my trips to the many supper clubs in the state. Since there are so many, I added my own entries and photos for the clubs that were not listed. It has been fun to document the memories of special meals, but also makes me feel a little like a restaurant critic. Yet, most of the things I document are good food and great experiences. I rarely have negative criticisms. Imagine my surprise when a copy of “my” book was there on the bar when I visited a supper club close to us. As you can imagine, that club had “made the cut” and was featured in the book. Good job guys.
Put your Traveling shoes on. Julie E. Smith