Fish Boils: A Door County Tradition

It sounds odd, the first time you say it. FISH BOIL Boiled fish. Definitely weird right? Until…you experience it for yourself. One of Door County’s most treasured traditions, a fish boil is part science and part culinary theater. It’s a process that culminates in a giant, but well controlled, fiery explosion resulting in…a really delicious meal. Fish boils have been around for a very long time, so let’s do a little digging into Door County history.

According to the writings of French missionaries who came to the Door peninsula in the 1600’s, the Potawatomi people often boiled fish and other meat over large fires as part of celebratory feasts. Icelandic settlers brought a fish, potato, and onion stew from their home to Washington Island in 1870. This eventually merged with the Potawatomi cooking practice and evolved into the modern fish boil enjoyed in Door County today. For many years, fish boils were limited to local family celebrations and an economical way to feed large groups of workers, especially commercial fishermen. It wasn’t until 1961 that The Viking Grill in Ellison Bay began offering fish boils for visitors, followed by other restaurants in the county.   

 So…what exactly happens at a fish boil? Well, it begins with three very important elements. The Boil Master, a really big kettle and a fire. Guests gather outside, taking positions that allow them the best view of the blaze. The Boil Master runs the show from start to finish, expertly telling the story of fish boil history and simultaneously keeping the cooking time. The kettle is filled with water and salt and starts to boil. This is the science part. The ratio of salt to water, a half-pound salt for every gallon of water, must be exact so that the gravity of the water allows the oils in the fish to float to the top. Once the water is boiling, in goes potatoes, followed by chunks of freshly-caught Lake Michigan Whitefish, and then onions.

Finally, the moment arrives. This is the theater part. The Boil Master does the one thing that magically turns the oily, heavy fish into light, flaky pieces of sheer deliciousness. The Boil Master tosses kerosene on the fire and creates the “boil over” – flames leap up from the fire below and engulf the entire kettle from bottom to top. Water boils over the edge of the kettle taking with it all the oil from the whitefish.

Now the guests gather inside, where they are served steaming plates of sweet whitefish, covered with melted butter, potatoes and onions, coleslaw, a slice of rye bread and a piece of Door County cherry pie. The fish will still have bones, but those are easily removed with assistance from skilled servers. It’s the quintessential Door County dining experience. Check out some of the restaurants offering fish boils and experience it for yourself!

The Viking Grill, Ellison Bay:   www.thevikinggrill.com

The White Gull Inn, Fish Creek:  www.whitegullinn.com

Pelletier’s Restaurant and Fish Boil, Fish Creek:  www.doorcountyfishboil.com      

The Old Post Office, Ephraim: www.oldpostoffice-doorcounty.com

Rowleys Bay Resort, Ellison Bay: www.rowleysbayresort.com

Scaturo’s Baking Co. & Café, Sturgeon Bay: www.scaturos.com