by Dave Hoekstra
with a foreword by Garrison Keillor
Peppered along rural highways and in small towns, one sees them here and there, driving to and from weekend destinations in Wisconsin and Iowa. A car or two in the parking lot in the middle of the day as one speeds by, rushing back to the city before the start of the workweek. The Supper Club.
Many of us whiz by without stopping, wondering what goes on in those seemingly exclusive rural enclaves. (They are “clubs,” after all.) Dave Hoesktra doesn’t wonder, though. He’s been hanging out in them. A lot of them. In Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, and even here in Illinois.
Hoekstra’s ode to the home of Friday Night Fish Fry and Saturday Night Prime Rib is captured in full color in The Supper Club Book, a love letter to the rural fine-dining establishments of yesteryear that somehow have managed to survive into the twenty-first century.
Hoekstra, a staff writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, visits two dozen supper clubs in this small-trim coffee table book. Approaching each supper club as a reporter, Hoekstra chronicles the history and people that have made each establishment what it is today. More than 100 photographs accompany write-ups of the supper clubs featured in the book.
The Supper Club Book is crammed with information, and it’s clear that Hoekstra has done his research, interviewing owners, former owners, patrons, and staff to provide readers with a snapshot of the clubs. He focuses on the nuances that makes each supper club unique, but also shines a light on the commonalities of them: table linens (instead of paper napkins), relish trays, prime rib dinners, and brandy old-fashioneds. Indeed, Hoekstra seems nearly fixated on these aspects: nearly each and every one of the twenty-four essays mentions these very details.
Many of the essays seem to follow the same format: a bit of history, an interview with current owners, a description of previous management, some commentary about the current interior and how it’s changed over the years. It’s as though Hoekstra followed a template, asking each interviewee the same questions. Indeed, each chapter stands on its own; there is no running narrative that ties the essays together. As a result, much of the material feels a bit redundant when reading from cover to cover.
But that’s not to say that each essay isn’t a story of its own. Hoekstra clearly loves his subject matter, and he reveals interesting details about the people—usually families, and often generations of them—who own and manage the supper clubs dotted about the upper Midwest. Hoekstra shines when he focuses on painting a picture of the people behind the supper clubs, and he usually focuses on the more recent history, using first-hand interviews to paint a picture of today’s supper clubs.
The text, in fact, makes much use of quotes from the author’s subjects. In that way, the interviewees tell their own stories, often in long, rambling quotes that reflect off-the-cuff responses to various questions. At times the subjects are reflective and nostalgic, at times funny and humble, as when, in one essay, a supper club owner, transplanted to Minnesota from points around the globe, says he felt like he “… was in the middle of nowhere. First I thought I was in a witness protection program.”
This is in contrast to Hoekstra’s own writing style, which some might call clipped or choppy, while others might think it somewhat Hemingwayesque, as when he writes “The Ced-Rel has been around since 1917. It was a product of this new connective America. The Ced-Rel began its life as a gas station.”
The Supper Club Book examines the origins of these dwindling, rural, fine-dining establishments as well as their future. In fact, the last chapter of the book is focused on a handful of modern supper clubs, restaurants that are finding a way to blend the best aspects of the supper clubs of yore with the demands of a younger clientele.
As such, the book looks both backward and forward, providing readers with a social history of what is a distinctly Midwestern phenomenon. Readers will enjoy flipping through its pages, landing on snippets from some of the interesting conversations Hoekstra has had with the people who keep these institutions going and examining the snapshots that reveal the faded interiors of these rural mainstays.
June 2013, Chicago Review Press/IPG
$29.95, hardcover, 287 pages
—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen
You can watch a video of the author discussing his book on “Chicago Tonight” with Phil Ponce.