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Born to be Mild: Oral Histories and Pathways of the Midwest Supper Club

Listen in as journalist Dave Hoekstra surveys the last remaining Midwest supper clubs, a type of dining establishment born in the early 1930s just as the automobile opened the door to the opportunity of American culture.

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Midwest supper clubs were born in the early 1930s—mostly in rural Wisconsin—just as the automobile opened the door to the opportunity of American culture.

By the 1920s anyone who wanted a car had a car. According to Douglas Brinkley’s Henry Ford biography, Wheels of the World, the first drive-in opened in 1921 in Dallas. Brinkley writes that one of every eight Americans was involved in some kind of automobile-related industry.The supper club became an enticing automobile destination where farm people (who had “dinner” for lunch and “supper” for dinner) would spend up to six hours. They would gather in a lounge for pre-supper drinks, have supper, and then adjourn to the lounge for post-supper cocktails. A sense of community was formed. Many supper clubs survived the creation of the 1950s interstate system. And many family-operated supper clubs survived franchising of the 1960s and ‘70s.

In this talk, journalist Dave Hoekstra surveys these establishments. He has been a Chicago Sun-Times staff writer since 1985. His work has also appeared in Playboy magazine, the Chicago Reader and the Journal of Country Music. Ticket To Everywhere, his collection of Sun-Times travel columns, was published by Lake Claremont Press. He also wrote Farm Aid: A Song For America and was a contributor to The Unofficial Guide To Chicago.

This talk was part of the Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance‘s fifth annual symposium, “Road Food: Exploring the Midwest One Bite at a Time.” Other events from this symposium recorded by Chicago Amplified—listed in the order they were presented—are as follows:

Marked for Life: My Travels on Route 66 in ’53, with Terri Ryburn
State Fair Heirloom Recipe Contest, with Catherine Lambrecht
Mobile Food in 19th-Century Chicago, with Peter Engler
Food Trucks: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, with Louisa Chu
Will Success Spoil Regional Food?, with Michael Stern
The Drive-In Restaurant: Before and After the Dawn of Fast Food, Food Theater, with Mary Bergin
A Gopher Turned Badger Eats Hoosier, and Vice Versa: Midwestern Culinary Traditions in the Small-Town Cafe, with Joanne Stuttgen
What Happened to Horseshoes?, with Julianne Glatz
Pies on the Road, with Shirley Cherkasky
Ethnographic Food Writing, or How I Ate My Way Across Wisconsin and Lived to Tell About It, with Joanne Stuttgen
Culinary Tourism in the Land of Meat and Potatoes and Green Bean Casserole, with Lucy M. Long
Summer Vacations in Northern Wisconsin, with Kelly Sears
Born to be Mild: Oral Histories and Pathways of the Midwest Supper Club, with Dave Hoekstra
Farmers Markets of the Heartland, the Ultimate Road Trip, with Janine MacLachlan
On the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, with Clara Orban
Remarks by Marilyn Wilkinson of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board
Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art Curator-Led Tour


Recorded Saturday, April 28, 2012 at Kendall College.

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