July 29, 2020

James Norton

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Kettle Full of Drama

A traditional lakeside fish boil is dinner theater, heavy on the pyrotechnics

If you grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, as I did, or Milwaukee, or even Chicago, there’s a good chance that you have memories of Door County, a woodsy peninsula that juts into Lake Michigan like a thumb protruding from Wisconsin.

Door County is to the Great Lakes cities what Cape Cod is to Boston or the Hamptons are to New York City. It’s a pleasant trek from the pressure cooker of city life to a strip of cottages and fried food purveyors surrounded on three sides by water. In Door County, luxury is attainable, but so is a working-class vacation, with days spent playing on sandy beaches and nights spent chasing the best hamburgers or steaks or even dragged-through-the-garden Chicago dogs at the modestly overpriced but nearly always charming spots that dot the Door Peninsula.

A few things set Door County apart from other vacationlands across the U.S. Frequent visitors know about the tart cherries that make for world-class pie, the restaurant with goats on the roof, and the cheerful mythologizing of the horrors of “Death’s Door,” the ship-chomping strait between the tip of Door County and Washington Island.

Kettle Full of Drama - Quote

It’s a controlled but still alarmingly large explosion, called a “boil-over,” and it is some of the best vacation theater available for love or money anywhere.

But perhaps most of all, they know about the fish boil, a dinner-and-a-show tour de force offered by eateries up and down the peninsula during the summer. The phrase “fish boil” isn’t a marketing masterstroke, but the event is a hell of a sight. Much of the excitement relates to scale. First, there’s the fire, which must be massive enough to bring an industrial-sized kettle to boil. The kettle itself is usually twenty gallons, big enough to poach a sheep. A fish boil is a meal for a crowd, so into the kettle go hefty baskets of onions, potatoes, and fish, typically local whitefish.

The most dramatic moment of the whole affair comes at the end, when the cook tosses kerosene directly onto the fire. It causes the water to boil over, carrying off any excess fish oil and snuffing out the flames. It’s a controlled but alarmingly large explosion, called a “boil-over,” and it is some of the best vacation theater available for love or money anywhere.

The fish boil seems to be a knitting-together of two different local traditions. The one-pot meal of fish, potatoes, and onions may have come from the Scandinavian fishermen who populated the county in the late 1800s. When I talked with Copenhagen-based cookbook author Trine Hahnemann about the fish boil, she recognized the ingredients and the end result. She didn’t recognize the twenty-gallon kettle, though, or the boil-over—both essential in Door County.

I better understood that part after a chat with historical interpreter Don Payne of Door County’s Rowleys Bay Resort. He pointed me to a 1940 book called “The Indians of the Western Great Lakes 1615–1760,” by W. Vernon Kinietz of the University of Michigan, which documents whitefish feasts among the Potawatomi people of the Great Lakes. It quotes the seventeenth-century French missionary Gabriel Sagard’s account of a Huron fish boil on modern-day Lake Huron:

Sometimes they put aside the biggest and fattest Assihendos [whitefish], and set them to boil away in great kettles in order to get the oil from them, which they skim off from the top of the boiling mass with a spoon and put into bottles like our calabashes. This oil is as sweet and nice as fresh butter, moreover it comes from a very good fish unfamiliar to the Canadians and even less known over here [in France].

The fish boil is at the heart of the authentic Door County tourism experience, and so it’s likely that you will see fish boil marketing from the moment you enter Green Bay until you’re on your way back to Chicago or Milwaukee.

The sales pitch usually compares the culinary experience of boiled whitefish dredged in clarified butter to lobster, and that’s about half right. The texture doesn’t match, as the whitefish is lighter and flakier, discernibly different than that of lobster. But the flavor is a nearly perfect match, and when consumed with potatoes and onions, paired with a local beer, and chased with a slice of Door County tart cherry pie, it’s a taste of summer that is quintessentially Midwestern.


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