Door County, Wisconsin is a pleasant little peninsula that extends north of the city of Green Bay separating the bay of Green Bay from Lake Michigan. It’s an idyllic place in the summer months when fruit stands and lighthouses, art galleries and bed and breakfast inns fill with those escaping the heat and entrapments of modern life farther south.
You’ll find no fast food joints in Door County, few chains of any kind. You won’t find many stop signs and fewer stoplights, or many reasons to get in a hurry at all.
What you will find is a local phenomena called a Fish Boil.
Experiencing a Door County Fish Boil
I know, it sounds disgusting. Boiled fish. Or is it something you lance? Do you need a medical opinion before attending a fish boil? Or is a fish boil something that happens to fish when exposed to nuclear waste?
None of the above. It’s a dining experience unique to the Door County and other Great Lakes communities.
One story goes that Scandinavian fishermen started the practice more than 100 years ago when coming in from their day on the boat. So hungry that they didn’t want to wait to get to dock, they filled pots of water over the boilers on the boat and dinner would be ready when they reached shore.
More modern legend begins in 1961 with the first commercial fish boil at the Viking Grill in Ellison Bay. Today, about 15 restaurants host fish boils two or three times a week in the summer.
If fish boil is scheduled for 7 p.m., plan on arriving at least 30 minutes early. Most restaurants offer hors d’oeuvres and drinks, as well as a patio or lawn area to watch and learn about the fish boil.
When you arrive, you’ll see a stack of cedar wood slabs stacked vertically under a 25 gallon pot, either iron or stainless steel, filled with water and about two pounds of salt. Thirty minutes before the boil over, the boil master adds new red potatoes. Some versions include carrots or corn on the cob at this time. Ten minutes later, he adds onions. Ten minutes after that, he adds the fish – a white fish caught the same day from nearby Lake Michigan.
As the fish boils, oil escapes and floats to the top of the water. This oil is what gives fish its “fishy” taste.
After about eight to ten minutes, the boil master throws kerosene on the fire, which causes a burst of heat, resulting in the water boiling over out of the pot. With the water, which immediately douses the fire, comes the unwanted fish oil.
With that spectacle complete, everyone retires to the dining area and the wait staff carries the pot to the kitchen where platefuls of boiled fish, potatoes and onions are served up to guests. Cole slaw and a hard, marble rye bread always accompany the plate of boiled goodies. Dessert is a mandatory Door County cherry pie, made from Montmorency cherries.
But if you don’t like fish, don’t worry. Most restaurants offer an alternative on fish boil nights, such as chicken, a hamburger or vegetarian dish. The Rowley’s Bay Resort fish boil includes a full buffet with soups, pasta and an incredibly selection of baked goods – and nothing boiled about it, no medical opinion required.