Feasting at a Fish Boil in Door County, Wisconsin

It just sounds disgusting, no matter how you word it. Fish Boil. Boiled Fish. Boiled white fish. With boiled white potatoes.

door county wisconsin, fish boil

A fish boil is held outside over an open flame. Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

At best, it doesn’t sound that appealing, but if when in Rome, do as the Romans, then when in Door County, boil fish.

Located just north of the city of Green Bay, Door County, Wisconsin is a pleasant little peninsula just three miles wide that separates the bay of Green Bay from Lake Michigan. It’s an idyllic place, particularly in the summer months, when fruit stands and lighthouses, art galleries and bed-and-breakfast inns fill with visitors escaping the heat and entrapments of modern life farther south.

You’ll find no fast food joints in Door County, and 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.

But attend a fish boil you must, because that’s what one does when in Door County.

In Your Bucket because…

  •   You’re not afraid to eat something that sounds a little icky.
  •   You’d eat anything if the reward was a slice of Montmorency Cherry Pie.
  •   Good for those who enjoy a little adventure and entertainment with dinner.

 Door County Fish Boil History

They’ve been boiling fish for more than 100 years around the Great Lakes. One story goes that Scandinavian fisherman started the practice 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.

door county fish boil, wisconsin cuisine

A basket of white fish caught in Lake Michigan ready to be placed over the flames. Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

Fish boils then became an economical way of feeding large groups of lumberjacks and fishermen. Church and civic groups are known to host them as fundraisers, much like chili suppers in other parts of the Midwest.

The 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. Church groups still do them as well. Just look for the hand-painted signs announcing fish boils along the roadways of Door County. That’s about as high-tech as the advertising is in this part of the world.

How to Boil Fish

A fish boil is about as complicated as boiling water. If the restaurant or civic 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.

fish boil, door county wisconsin

A story teller at Rowley’s Bay Resort entertains while the fish are boiling. Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

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 at this time. Ten minutes later, he adds pearl onions. Ten minutes after that, he adds the fish.

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, accompanied by oohs, aahs and applause from the crowd, 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.

In the end, you may just decide that a Door County Fish Boil is a mighty fine experience.

 Practicalities

  • Reservations are required to attend a fish boil.
  • The price is usually about $15 per person.
  • Most restaurants also offer menu items for those who don’t want to eat fish.
  • First timers may wish to find a restaurant that offers assistance in skinning and deboning the white fish.

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