For me, and this is my own personal take, fish boils are mundane as hell. The majority of the world would probably disagree. But where I come from, fish boils were not uncommon at summer gatherings. Those savory feasts weren’t at every event, but there were enough to enjoy two or three a summer. Hell, as a kid, I believe there was a stretch where my family had one every night.
In the old days, fish boils were a necessary way to feed a large group of people. I guess it would be the Scandinavian’s version of Cowboy Stew. You see, in the 19th century, immigrants would use this particular style of cooking to satisfy large groups of workers in the peninsula. It was economical and fairly easy.
Now, it’s an attraction for curious tourists. At certain restaurants in Door County, they boil fish in their yards the old fashioned way; a large black kettle over an open flame. Throw in some potatoes, onions and corn, and you’re eating a meal worthy of the Door County settlers.
Here’s my latest Door County fish boil experience…
It’s getting kind of late, actually it’s closing in on eight o’clock. I’m meandering towards Fish Creek, adhering to the 45 mph signs on Highway 42. It’s a difficult endeavor, considering Pelletier’s last fish boil is served in a few minutes. Finally we descend into the small bayside town, courtesy of blacktop cutting through a bluff. We follow our GPS and wind up in a small parking lot, hoping we’re not too late.
We do arrive before ‘boil over’ takes place, as we find a group of tourists gathered around a large black kettle. Flames emanating from wood logs lick the kettle continuously, as steam and smoke lightly billow into the late evening sunlight. The scene is set behind the restaurant, just beyond a small concrete patio. Plastic tables with large shade umbrellas await the group ogling the giant pot of fish. In the background, as I peer through the wispy steam and smoke, a giant wall of bare yellowed limestone, capped with lush green trees, adds to this quaint but invigorating setting.
We ask the young bussers, who are dutifully cleaning up the remnants of the group before us, how we can get in on the fun. They direct us inside, where we buy two tickets for a price of 21 dollars a piece. It may sound pricey, but drinks, whitefish, vegetables and desert are all included – not to mention the novelty of watching the food being prepared. We’re handed two tickets and join the group watching the boiling pot.
When we get to the pot, we’re just in time to see the finishing touch. It’s a segment known as boil over and it involves some pretty intense heat. The cook throws some fuel to the flame and a gargantuan fireball consumes the pot. Water spews over the rim of the kettle, rapidly spilling towards the ground. People ooh and ahh, as others, like me, take some photos of the fun little event. Honestly, as I was pretty close to the flames, I thought I was going to cook along with the whitefish.
After that moment, the crowd disperses, finding tables and waiting for the contents of the kettle to be divvied up. Heidi and I find a cool table for two, set along the back of the building. It’s kind of a long wait, but we survey the bluff, chit chat and take in the perfect weather.
Heidi has never partook in a fish boil. I express my desire for onions and potatoes to be included with the fish. As a youngster, it was the vegetables that I loved most while devouring like meals. I always loved how the softened onions’ layers peeled easily.
When the food is finally served, I’m not disappointed. There’s an onion, potato and they even threw some corn on the cob for good measure along with the whitefish. I’m set to dig in, and do just that.
The whitefish is buttered to perfection. But a bit of warning, there are bones to avoid while eating said fish. I pick a few from my teeth but am no worse for wear. Heidi is not so lucky and has to make a jaunt to the restroom to dislodge one from her throat. All in all, after the pie is served and the my plate is finished, I totally enjoyed this dining experience.
In closing, I’ll just say that fish boils are kind of something ingrained in my being. You know, like other Wisconsin commonalities that the outsiders might find novel or interesting. Along with the Packers, Brats and cheese curds, it’s a local delight; comparable to a Big Mac or DQ blizzard for those of you that are not from around here. They’re quite accessible, yet you hardly get tired of them. I guess they make up the local Door County native persona. And that’s cool, because interesting signature traits give me and my fellow Door Countians flavor and character!