In one of the oddest publishing coincidences and competitions in recent memory, two books about the artery-clogging subculture of supper clubs have hit the shelves at the same time: Ron Faiola's "Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old-Fashioned Experience" and Dave Hoekstra's "The Supper Club Book: A Celebration of a Midwest Tradition."
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In part this may be my fault, since I gave the authors/eaters advice and offered encouragement early in the process, as they both recall by thanking me in their books' acknowledgments.
Faiola's book is the logical outgrowth of his fine and popular 2011 documentary film of the same name. That was his second food-focused film, following 2009's "Fish Fry Milwaukee," a paean to one of that city's endearing and enduring culinary traditions.
To make the supper club film, Faiola spent a year as a one-man crew traveling to 14 places throughout the state. In his new book, 50 supper clubs are featured.
Hoekstra has 24 spots in his book, as well as a few ghosts in its final chapter, "Tribute to Supper Clubs Gone By." He travels not only to Wisconsin but to Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota.
It is not possible for either author to provide a one-sentence definition of "supper club."
Faiola offers some qualities all should have, compiled by some of his friends. Among them, "Christmas lights strung across log structures year-round"; "Waitresses that call you 'Hon'"; "Pre-supper relish tray (preferably served on stainless steel)"; and "No cappuccino, ever."
Hoekstra maintains that, among many characteristics, a supper club should be "filled with clumsy furniture"; have "linen napkins"; waitresses usually called "Helen, Sally, or Gloria"; a "dark setting. …You can be in a supper club in the middle of the day and it will feel like the middle of the night"; and "unlike some suspect diners, bars, and cafes, (be a place where) kids are welcome … with their parents."
Both agree, as do I, that supper clubs are distinctive pieces of the past made present, important cultural and sociological oases in the increasingly chain-operated, fast-food clime.
"Corporations have defined mainstream eating habits in America," writes Hoekstra. "Characters define supper clubs."
Understandably, there is some overlap. Both authors/eaters hit the following Wisconsin clubs: HobNob in Racine, Sullivan's Supper Club in Trempealeau, Ding-A-Ling Supper Club in Hanover, Smoky's Club in Madison, the Mill Supper Club in Sturgeon Bay, and Ishnala in Lake Delton.
Faiola is a serviceable writer, offering the basics about the places he visits, and getting a bit more personal in the "My Take" sections that accompany each of the clubs.
Hoekstra has long been one of the city's best reporters and writers at the Sun-Times, and so he fashions, from what are essentially oral histories, lively feature stories about each of his selections.
You meet Oscar "Ozzie" Huber, the blind dishwasher at Smoky's Club since 1964, and hear him say, "I'm the oldest thing in the kitchen. This is my second home."
And you get lyrical writing such as this: "The slow good-bye to the warmest of seasons comes from the signals of state fairs, a chorus of cicadas, and not wearing white pants after Labor Day. But summer always leaves in the dead of the night. Suddenly, like a one-night stand in a cheap motel.
"You know summer is a fleeting fancy because you are from the Midwest."
Hoekstra's has the added bonus of a foreword by Garrison Keillor, who takes us fancifully to Lake Wobegon's Moonlite Bay Supper Club, "a little snuggery overlooking the water where candles flicker in maroon globes on the tables."
The real places discovered by Faiola and Hoekstra are equally, uniquely charming.
Faiola on Country Heights Supper Club and Motel in Hazel Green: "I paid for my room at the supper club bar, unloaded the car, washed up and headed over to the club for supper. … There's nothing like a nice room with a supper club just steps away."
Hoekstra on Turk's Inn and Sultan Room in Hayward, Wis.: "The supper club is a Turkish bath bubbling over in bric-a-brac like stuffed pheasants, collector's plates of almost all US presidents, gold tassels, paintings of all sorts, and black-and-white photographs of famous customers like President John F. Kennedy. … Actor Mickey Rooney came in once, admitting he was lost."
Each book is heavily and handsomely illustrated, capturing the look and feel of the clubs and some of the people who run and frequent them. Hoekstra's book has more historical photos in addition to many of his own and a few taken by Paul Natkin. Faiola shot all of the photos in his book, and he captures food on the page like a pro. He also offers a recipe for one of the beloved boozy traditions of the clubs, a "hand-muddled brandy old-fashioned sweet."
Never had one? Too bad. But easily remedied: Grab these books, grab your car keys and hit the road.
Rick Kogan is a Tribune senior writer and columnist.
Wisconsin Supper Clubs
By Ron Faiola, Agate Midway, 224 pages, $35
The Supper Club Book
By Dave Hoekstra, Chicago Review Press, 304 pages, $29.95