Ron Failoa's new book profiles a charming semi-secret Wisconsin culinary tradition.
When I learned about Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old-Fashioned Experience by Ron Failoa, I was looking forward to learning more about this semi-secret, but long-running faction of life in Wisconsin. Why? Because I'm from Wisconsin and my idea of a supper club was meeting at friends' houses weekly to cook a delicious meal from scratch together with a specific cuisine as our theme. Successful dinners included moussaka, roll-your-own sushi, murgh tikki masala, and a New England seafood boil.
I soon learned, however, that a true Wisconsin supper club is something completely different – and that, to my surprise, I'd actually eaten at several establishments Faiola highlights.
Supper clubs have a long tradition in Wisconsin. Many began as dance halls, taverns, roadhouses, and recreational areas. During Prohibition some were even speakeasies, however, later they all morphed into family-run restaurants with menus full of Wisconsin comfort food. They were mom-and-pop to the core, as many of the eateries had the families living on the grounds. There is an unspoken understanding at these clubs that dinner is meant to last for hours so that diners can enjoy fellowship with each other, not unlike going to a friend's house for dinner. "Club" is actually a misnomer because Wisconsin supper clubs aren't exclusive nor are there fees to be a "member." Supper clubs are more upscale than taverns with nicely appointed table settings and higher-end ingredients like prime rib, lobster, and shrimp as well as homemade soups, salad dressings, and desserts.
Faiola gives a good overview of the defining factors of Wisconsin supper clubs in his book to help readers unfamiliar with them to better understand what to expect. For example: