Thursday, November 17, 2011

Beyond the cheese castle

Posted By on 11.17.11 at 03:30 PM

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When I was in my late teens, my family moved to a medium-sized—and pretty middling, actually—town in eastern Wisconsin, where over two consecutive summers I held jobs at two supper club-style restaurants. Though it’s true that at the first restaurant my title was “fry cook” and at the second my title was “fry chef,” the jobs were not altogether dissimilar. I came to think of the deep fryer as something in which you could cook anything—even home fries, the potato dish generally skillet-cooked, were just dumped into the fryer here, like french fries but cubed. It was also a sort of Hail Mary machine: I saw cooks toss steaks into it when they wanted them to cook faster. My parents, neither of whom were Wisconsin natives, identified what they thought was the salient characteristic of the Wisconsin supper club: you spend a while drinking at the bar, they discovered, before you sit down to eat.

Kitchen jobs aside, I don’t think I’ve ever eaten at a Wisconsin supper club—I’ve only experienced them from the inside out, and never sat down to do the whole old-fashioned-and-prime-rib thing. So it was fun to see Kevin Pang’s exhaustive analysis of the cultural importance of the supper club in today’s Tribune. Pang visited a few regional exemplars and derived some truisms: “A $30 entree at a supper club is not a $30 entree in downtown Milwaukee or Chicago,” and “There should be a relish tray.” It’s a good read:

What separates the supper club genre from other restaurants is here, they prefer the word "and" over "or." It seems like the antithesis of Wisconsin hospitality to decide between soup or salad, so more often than not, you get both, on top of the bread basket of saltines and sesame breadsticks and dinner rolls, the baked potato, the kidney bean salad, the pickles, the cheese spread, so on, so forth. By the time the main event arrives, you've already been fed into submission by the undercard.

It's no coincidence the term "doggie bag" is attributed to a Wisconsinite, Lawrence Frank, the man who in 1938 launched the Lawry's prime rib chain in Beverly Hills and who is considered the forefather of supper clubs.

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