Unfolding the Map
Turning south on US 51 at Minocqua with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) and his teenage rider, we head down a celebrated road filled with gift shoppes and supper clubs. I will reminisce about Wisconsin, it's wholesome shops and its supper clubs while we go. Where is Minocqua? Let the map feed your curiosity!
"We turned south onto U.S. 51 at Minocqua. Motels and restaurants gimmicked up like barns and country stores the whole way; most had gift shoppes and some had caged animals for petting. Then the supper clubs, each named after its owner."
Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 12
Of the things I remember about Wisconsin, one thing that I always found a little cheesy was the plethora of what LHM calls "shoppes." Literally cheesy. When one drives from Chicago to Milwaukee, not far over the Wisconsin state line is something called the Mars Cheese Castle. It is a "gift shoppe" filled with Wisconsin-made cheeses, sausages, and other foodstuffs, as well as other types of knick knacks and tchotchkes. The Mars Cheese Castle, however, is a freeway stop so it is really big.
The state, however, is full of these types of shops on a smaller scale. Every adorable and cute downtown in small towns around the state have little gift shoppes, all catering to people's ideas of the simple rural existence of Wisconsin. I remember a lot of crafts, crotcheted and knitted pieces for example, or locally made pottery, woodworked, picture frames, and a lot of knick knacks with people's names on them. Most of the gifts seemed to have a useful purpose in some way or another, some utilitarian function that somehow seemed to fit the industriousness of the people of a state where letting things go to waste seems to be somehow improper. The shops were all very homely, not in the sense of beauty but in the sense of being another thing that bolstered Wisconsin's image as a wholesome place steeped in the simplicity of rural life.
Another really interesting thing in Wisconsin that I found fascinating were the supper clubs. LHM mentions driving by these establishments. I have to admit I never really understood what a supper club was. You would walk in, and they appeared to be an ordinary restaurant, though the architecture and the decor always reminded me of movie restaurants set in the late 50s or early 60s. The food was usually good, but not exotic. You would find typically meats (and sometimes fish), soups, potatoes and salads, with pies, cakes and ice creams for dessert. In other words, if you were looking for haute French cuisine, you were not going to find it at a supper club.
I was always confused a little by the idea of these places being "clubs." Were they clubs because certain people paid memberships and therefore got better food and booze in a back room? I never saw any evidence of that, though it was obvious that, like at any restaurant, there were repeat patrons that the staff knew by name. But being in Wisconsin, I didn't associate the word "club" with entertainment.
Of course, I did a little bit of reading on the idea of supper clubs before I wrote this post. Since they are ubiquitious around the upper Midwest, I was surprised to learn that the first supper club was not established anywhere near that region, but in Beverly Hills, California, though the proprietor was from Milwaukee. The idea of the supper club is to create an atmosphere and ambience where people would want to spend an entire evening. In that sense, the supper club differs from a restaurant. Restaurants serve, patrons eat, patrons leave. In a supper club, patrons go for an early evening cocktail and "shoot the breeze" with friends. Then, dinner and dessert is served. Finally, there is an evening entertainment and nightcaps before people head home. In other words, if one does the supper club correctly, one would spend 5 or more hours at the place.
The ambience of the club is supposed to be that of a high-class type of place. Patrons would want to go there because it is a step above a restaurant. It is a place that a guy would take a girl that he wanted to impress with a nice evening out, or where a couple can celebrate a significant wedding anniversary. It could also be a place for wedding receptions. A supper club is a place where natives might take their out-of-town guests to impress them. However, the cost of going is not prohibitive. The supper club is affordable because the menu is kept simple.
Of course, living in Wisconsin for a few years, I had the opportunity to visit a supper club or two. For many falls, I would travel with friends to the Horicon Marsh State Wildlife Area. In the fall, the Canada geese use the refuge as a stopover on their way south to warmer climes. Thousands of geese nest in the marsh in the evenings, and during the daytime fly out to the fields to search for food. If you get there at the right time in the late afternoon, you can see the geese, tens of thousands of them, fly back into the marsh. It is quite a spectacle, and I still remember one time when I saw, very distant, a "V" line of geese slowly wing across a low, huge yellow moon.
Once, on the way back, Megan and I stopped in at a supper club and had a nice dinner there with a very friendly waitress - I seem to remember she was dressed in something resembling a dirndl but I can't be sure. One of the most famous supper clubs was The Gobbler, just off I-94 in Johnson Creek, Wisconsin. It was a strange looking building. Evidently, it was supposed to celebrate the turkey, and the architecture was supposed to resemble that bird in abstract. It was a unique experience, let's say. The place closed in 1992 and has been memorialized and missed ever since. James Lileks, who created The Gallery of Regrettable Food, has one of the funniest and best memorials of The Gobbler, which he called the "ugliest, and somehow coolest, motel in America."
I had another experience with a supper club in northern Illinois, one that fills me with a strange sort of pride. Taken there by a native, the menu offered something called the Pork o' Plenty plate. I asked the waitress about it. She advised I not get it because it would be too much food for me. I was young and had a stomach of iron that belied my 6' 1" 150 pound frame. I took the challenge. I also ordered some soup and salad, despite her warnings. I not only ate the soup, salad and the Pork O' Plenty, but I also ate my dessert and most of my companion's dessert. When I left, I heard the waitress exclaim "we get big ol' farm boys in here but I've never seen anyone eat like that!"
I wouldn't be able to do that now. But I would still visit a supper club, as they are unique institutions that somehow seem to fit the region of the United States where they are most common.
As we know from the quote, LHM and his teenage passenger turned onto Highway 51 in Minocqua. This particular highway runs from near Canada straight north-south down into Mississippi, and has been celebrated in song from the likes of Mississippi bluesmen such as John Lee Hooker to 60s folk icon Bob Dylan. I'm giving you a double shot in this post: Robert Allen Zimmerman (if you don't know him, click on his name) doing a live version of Highway 51, and Tommy McLennan, a roots Delta bluesman from way back, doing New Highway 51.
If you want to know more about Minocqua
Next up: Merrill, Wisconsin