Supper Clubs: One Reason This Tennessee Girl Loves Wisconsin
Singing the praises of a certain Appleton institution
Raised to love the land and embrace my community, I started a local food-consulting business in 2012, Corbin In The Dell (CITD), when Nashville’s food scene exploded in Tennessee. Out of necessity, I began to write about the people I came to know. Partially due to the lack of a marketing budget, but mostly because I longed for a brighter future for our food. On my first visit to Wisconsin, you can only imagine my delight. Farmland as far as the eye can see, and some of the most genuine people on the planet.
Then I discovered the Wisconsin supper club. It’s a perfect example of why I fell in love with Wisconsinites. Dinner is something you eat around the noontime hour.
Supper? It isn’t supper without everyone’s feet under the table and plates piled high. There’s something wonderfully communal about supper that its snooty cousin “dinner” just can’t muster.
Y’all work hard, play even harder, and when it’s time to eat, there’s no excuse for leaving the table hungry. Before we start loosening our belts, I must address cocktail hour. This isn’t just happy hour. There’s no quick snort of bourbon, before heading home. This crucial hour sets the stage for an evening of remarkable food, delicious conversation and creating memories with both old and new friends.
My first Brandy Old Fashioned was at a little gem of a place called Mark’s East Side Supper Club in Appleton. It’s namesake and owner, Mark Dougherty explains, “Over the years, they’ve gotten bigger, maybe to dilute the liquor. If you ask for an Old Fashioned in a tub, they’ll know what you mean,” Dougherty explained.
While he’s reluctant to give up his recipe, he smiles, “Cherries, bitters, a cube of sugar, an orange peel, the liquor and soda of your choice and I’d say you’ve got a pretty good Old Fashioned.” The unofficially, official Wisconsin cocktail made its debut at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. Head to a Midwestern speakeasy in the 1920s and you could bet your bottom your liquor of choice would have been brandy.
“Prohibition was the catalyst of supper clubs, but some have been around a lot longer. They tend to be in unique places and are often on the edge or outskirts of town,” says Therese Oldenburg, executive director of the non-profit Wisconsin Supper Clubs. Try as I might, I couldn’t find a definition of this Badger State tradition. Oldenburg explains, “I think it’s because it varies from area to area. It’s very subjective to interpretation.
It really is about that local place in town that says ‘this is what we think is a supper club.’”
Grammy nominated singer/ songwriter and Mile of Music music festival co-founder Cory Chisel was born and raised in Appleton. Be on the look out for great things to come from this Mark’s East Side neighbor as he recently bought the former Monte Alverno property next door. He reminisces,“Growing up in Appleton and with modest means, visiting our famed supper clubs was a big deal … it was one of those ‘Mom-and-Dad-love-you’ occasions.” He continues,“My favorite growing up was Mark’s East Side Supper Club, and steak and lobster was what I remember liking most, along with, of course, the coleslaw and the relish tray. These days Chisel finds himself craving a taste of home, “every great supper club has a signature fish fry. There’s just nothing like the supper club experience with familiar faces and comfort food.”
Dougherty’s father, Bill, learned butchering at a grocery store while he moonlit as a supper club cook for extra income.
“Dad always had several jobs, while Mom kept care of us kids,” he remembers. In 1965, Bill worked out a deal at the famous Tony Wonders Club in Little Chute. He would take the kitchen receipts while Tony took the bar. Chef Bill’s specials were all the rage. So, in 1967 Bill and Jan Dougherty realized their dream and opened Chef Bill’s Supper Club. Back then, Dougherty was just a kid. He’d help out by cleaning the bar after elementary school. He moved on to bussing tables at the age of 14, cooking by the age of 15 and by the time he was able to drive, he was running the broiler.
“I was always cutting the meat with them on Sunday mornings,” says Dougherty. While he doesn’t cook on the line anymore, Dougherty still likes to help with the daily butchering.
“I’m more of the face at the front of the house,” he smiles. Dougherty and his wife Lori are happy to call Mark’s East Side folks like General Manager Rhoda Steffel their family.
“She’s been with us for more than 20 years. She really runs the joint,” exclaimed the veteran restaurateur.
Many of the 300+ Wisconsin supper clubs are third-generation owned. Oldenburg said, “It’s one of those things that people love the fact that things haven’t really changed. It’s a little piece of history.”
That’s why she started the non-profit, Wisconsin Supper Clubs. At the core of this organization is a belief that the tradition is a “true gem in the landscape of Wisconsin’s dining culture and we believe that they must be savored, cherished, explored and passed down to the next generation.” Chisel couldn’t agree more,
“Now, I’m fortunate to be able to frequent Mark’s again, and it’s even more special because it’s about now and yesterday, for me. My favorites are the Old Fashioned and the walleye. You can keep your sushi, give me a walleye fillet.”
As it turns out, I didn’t need to define what a supper club is. It defines itself. Regardless of its origin or menu, I take comfort in knowing supper will forever make room for more feet under the table.
Supper clubs may be a Wisconsin tradition, but we Southerners aren’t much different. A supper party is always a good idea.
Brooke Bell and Brian Hoffman of Taste of the South magazine decided to host a bimonthly supper club a little over a year ago.
“It’s all about the social aspect,” said Hoffman. He and his husband, Stephen were intentional about selecting people that they didn’t regularly see. “We thought this was a great mashup of people and their personalities,” adds Hoffman.
Bell says, “I was the opposite of that. My husband and I are now great friends with new people.” At the end of each party, guests leave with a little snack to remember the evening.
Cookbook author and friend of Bell and Hoffman, Gena Knox offers a host of family recipes organized by mealtime (including supper) in her third cookbook Southern My Way: Food & Family. Bell bid her supper guests goodnight with Knox’s Mom’s Cheese Pecan Wafers.