Photo Courtesy of Door County Visitors Bureau
“Get your cameras ready!” shouts the masterboiler. “We’re going to have a boil over!”
A ring of hungry diners stands outside a Door County restaurant about ten feet from a huge metal cauldron hung over a blazing hardwood fire. In the pot is salted water, locally grown red potatoes, small sweet onions, and fresh Lake Michigan whitefish. It has all been steadily simmering about twelve minutes since the pieces of fish were added; about thirty minutes since first the potatoes and then the onions went in. The guests anticipate an exciting finale to this Door County culinary spectacle.
The boil master approaches the fire with a can of #1 fuel oil. “Here it goes!” he says. Like a sorcerer’s apprentice, he tosses kerosene onto the burning logs beneath the cauldron, and quickly backs away.
Whoosh! A bright orange tower of flame engulfs the pot and rises for a moment eight feet over the fire pit.
“Wow!” says the crowd.
The intense heat sends a waterfall of boiling salty water and fish oil over the lip of the pot. Dozens of cameras capture the spectacle as the cascade of salty broth douses much of the fire.
“Take a seat folks,” says the boilmaster, “dinner is about to be served!”
“The Door County Fish Boil is the flavor of Door County,” says Dan Petersen, masterboiler and current owner of the Viking, the first restaurant to offer Door County Fish Boil in 1960. “Some days in summer we’ll serve up to 300 people.”
Fish boils are a tasty link to the early settlers on Wisconsin’s “thumb.” Immigrant settlers were Scandinavian and European loggers, fishermen and farmers. Living and working in lumber or fish camps, they found it convenient and enjoyable to share meals. Fish were abundant and a good variety of vegetables readily available. Fish boils became staples of the region, common at church dinners, celebrations and community events.
By the mid-1950s, Door County had become a popular travel destination, and in 1960 Lawrence and Annette Wickman, owners of The Viking Restaurant in Ellison Bay, started offering “fish boils” regularly. Almost immediately, The White Gull Inn in Fish Creek followed. Colored photos in magazines and postcards of the spectacular flaming boil-over helped rouse public curiosity and feed the interest in this unusual dining experience.
“When you visit Door County, it’s one thing you have to do,” says Jon Jarosh, Communications and Public Relations Director at the Door County Visitor Bureau, “And once you try it, you’ll likely want to do it again!”
The signature dish always comes with “the show.” In addition to serving as top-chef, the boilmaster usually talks about Door County history, explains the recipe, and tells stories or jokes. Guests are often serenaded by enthusiastic local singers and musicians. Rowleys Bay Restaurant even has a reenactor play “Peter Rowley” who relates the colorful history of the region.
Locally sourced ingredients are fresh and flavorful. The White Gull omits the traditional onions because the late Russell Ostrander, their popular boilmaster and accordion player, felt they “overpower the delicate flavor of the fish.” All the others still include onions.
“It’s just personal preference,” Jarosh explains. “Most restaurants serve the whitefish boil dinner with lemon slices, Wisconsin butter, homemade bread, tartar sauce and zesty coleslaw. Of course, you have to finish with Door County Cherry Pie ala mode!”
He recommends pairing it with local specialties: Door County Brewing Company’s “Little Sisters—Wit Beer” or “Apple-Cherry Cider” from Island Orchard. Andy Coulson, proprietor of the White Gull Inn says he likes light Door County white wines.
During the height of the season, mid-May through early-October, eight to ten restaurants from Sturgeon Bay to Gills Rock and on Washington Island offer up to five boils per day, serving twenty to fifty people per seating. Coulson says the White Gull Inn, the only restaurant serving year-round, serves 12-15,000 people a year.
SEVERAL POPULAR RESTAURANTS INCLUDE:
The Viking (920-854-2998, www.thevikinggrill.com) in Ellison Bay
The White Gull Inn (888-364-9542, www.whitegullinn.com) in Fish Creek
Pelletier’s (920-868-3313, www.doorcountyfishboil.com) in Fish Creek
Rowleys Bay Restaurant (920-854-2385, www.rowleysbayresort.com) in Rowleys Bay Because service hours change, always call ahead for reservations
Door County Visitors Bureau: 800-527-3529, www.DoorCounty.com
Fish Boil Dining Guide: www.doorcounty.com/experience/fish-boils/
This article originally appeared in the 2016 spring/summer issue of Experience Wisconsin magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
No portion of this article or magazine may be reproduced without prior written permission by the publisher.