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Lots of salt and a curtain of fire

By Judy FlormanContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / August 11, 2004



FISH CREEK, WIS.

Some people go to Door County, Wisconsin, for its limestone cliffs that overlook cerulean waters, or for its country roads, which meander past cherry and apple orchards to art galleries and tiny villages sporting quaint names like Fish Creek, Egg Harbor, and Sister Bay.

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My family and I go to watch water foam over the tops of huge caldrons. We are fish-boil groupies. We can't resist the ambiance and dramatics of the fire-lighting and preparation ceremony. So each August, after we take in the thrills of the annual Experimental Aircraft Association's annual Fly-In in Oshkosh, we head north about two hours on Highway 42.

Shakespeare's caldrons in "Macbeth" may have bubbled fellet of fenny snake, eye of newt, or toe of frog, but the vigorously boiling caldrons of Door County hold only succulent whitefish and little red potatoes. And these hearty foods bring fish-boil aficionados back to this area each summer.

Nothing says Door County like the traditional fish boil. Not the quaint signs seen around the area - "Not Licked Yet Frozen Custard," "YGOBY Housekeeping Cabins," or "Butik" variety store - or the distinctive colloquialisms: "Take Main Street straight as a string."

Not even the goats grazing on the thatched roof of A.L. Johnson's Swedish Restaurant in Sister Bay. Cherry pies and fish boils - that's Door County.

Legend traces this tradition back to the early Scandinavian pioneer settlers (later adopted by the lumbermen of the last century) who resourcefully devised the technique of cooking the abundant whitefish and lake trout with potatoes in a large pot outdoors over a roaring wood fire.

Our favorite place for a fish boil is the White Gull Inn in Fish Creek, where on Wednesdays and weekends people gather round a black caldron suspended over a wood fire to watch as the water begins to boil.

We wait in anticipation for the show to begin, under the direction of "master boiler" Marc Paulson. As a warm-up, accordion player Lou Close serenades the observers with an overture of bouncy German polkas. When the concert reaches its climax, the festivities begin.

As the water reaches the height of turbulence, the master boiler's sous- chef checks and repositions the burning logs, which are stacked vertically against the base of the kettle. Rock salt - a pound for every two gallons of water - is poured into the churning water. An assistant appears, carrying a colander of potatoes, which is lowered into the boiling caldron.

Watches are set for a 22-minute cooking time for the spuds. The moment that's over, a colander of fresh fish, caught by local fishermen, appears. The sous-boilers plop the second colander right on top of the potatoes.

Watches are synchronized for the final eight minutes, and spectators hungrily eye the white fish chunks whipping about in the salty foam.

At the precise moment of perfect fish doneness, the master boiler, with a dramatic flourish, heaves a measure of kerosene at the flames under the pot ("being careful not to lose hair," one boiler once cautioned).

A curtain of fire engulfs the pot, instantly raising the temperature of the frothing water. A massive boilover of fish oils and water douses the flames with a swoosh. Left in the kettle are the fish and potatoes, steaming hot and ready to serve.

The two colanders are scooped up from the kettle and rushed indoors. We hastily follow to the table, where we find coleslaw, lemons, and melted butter. Home-baked breads - lemon, orange, date-nut, pumpkin, and rye - complement the meal.

The pièce de résistance, traditional Door County cherry pie and ice cream, caps off the meal.

And dreams of cherry pies and frothing water dance in our heads till next year.

Reservations are recommended for fish boils at the White Gull Inn, 4225 Main Street, Fish Creek, Wis. Telephone (920) 868-3517, or see the website, www.whitegullinn.com/fishboil.htm.

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