Wisconsin Fish Boil: Local Food with Local Flair

Door County's eco-friendly White Gull Inn serves a local fish boil on Fridays in winter.

Door County's eco-friendly White Gull Inn serves a local fish boil on Fridays in winter.

A local culinary tradition that stems from Door County’s Scandinavian settlers, a fish boil is a concoction of history and culture on a plate. Caught by local fishermen, the Lake Michigan whitefish is cooked outside over an open fire—and half the fun is watching it happen.

My friends and I attended the Friday night fish boil at the White Gull Inn in the town of Fish Creek. When we arrived, the whole red potatoes had already been boiling for a couple of hours over the fire right outside. However, soon they announced that it was time for the fish to go onto the fire, so I bundled up and braved the cold outside to watch. (Even though the flames are warm, the mercury on the thermometer hovered at 11 degrees the night of my fish boil dinner.)

Tom Christianson, the Masterboiler for White Gull Inn for 13 years, lowered a pot filled with chunks of whole fish into the boiling, salted water. Over the 10 minutes that the fish cooks, the fish oil rises to the top of the water. That’s the Masterboiler’s cue to splash kerosene on the fire, which causes the flames to soar (very dramatic on a dark, wintry night!). The super-hot flames make the pot of fish boil over so that the fish oil spills out, and the result is a less fishy taste for the remaining fish.

Curious note: Masterboiler Tom looks like Santa wearing civvies. Could he be moonlighting in Door County? He claims to live in Green Bay, Wisconsin—but can we be sure it’s not the North Pole?

Tom Christiansen throws kerosene on the fire to boil off the fish oils in the pots.

Tom Christianson throws kerosene on the fire to boil off the fish oils in the pots.

Chow Time

After Tom and helpers took dinner off the fire, it was time to go through the buffet line and fill my plate with fish, red potatoes, wintry cole slaw (super fresh, with tangy onion and crunchy cabbage) and lemon. Teapots with melted butter awaited at the table.

When I sat down, I looked in wonder at my fish dinner—the perfect locavore meal. (I was also drinking an Island Wheat beer, which is light in flavor and in its environmental footprint, as it’s made from wheat grown on Door County’s Washington Island.)

The White Gull Inn staff serves up the just-cooked potatoes and fish.

The White Gull Inn staff serves the just-cooked potatoes and fish.

Then I had to come to grips with one of my childhood phobias: fish bones. Nervously I eyed my plate, but just before I panicked, a very nice lady came to our group’s table and offered to de-bone the fish! I breathed a sigh of relief as she deftly peeled out the big bones. (In truth, a few tiny ones remained, so I did have to pick my way around those—but at least I was able to enjoy the flaky, sweet meat.)

To top off the meal: gooey and sweet/tart Door County cherry pie. Mmmm…

Eco-Kudos for White Gull Inn

Though I didn’t stay there, the White Gull Inn looks to be a quaint and comfy B&B, and it’s also earned high scores from Travel Green Wisconsin. Some of its environmentally conscious measures include:

  • Serves local and organic food products
  • Use of energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs
  • Recycling program
  • Dining room provides water on request only

Voice your opinion: What’s been your favorite local food tradition?

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance travel writer

B&B on an Organic Kentucky Farm

Of all the quaint inns I’ve visited, few compare to Snug Hollow Bed and Breakfast, a tranquil, eco-friendly place nestled into the hills and woods of the eastern Kentucky Appalachians.

Snug Hollow B&B's cheery sunroom

Snug Hollow B&B’s cheery sunroom

Located in the rural countryside near Irvine and Berea, Kentucky, Snug Hollow is indeed snugly situated in a valley-like area between two hills with a stream trickling through it, called a “hollow” (and pronounced “holler” in this neck of the woods).

This organic farm boasts 300 acres of babbling creeks, glorious wildflowers, wooded mountainsides, and the simplicity of country life.

Snug Hollow’s owner and innkeeper, Barbara Napier, focuses on all things local, whether it’s food from her organic garden, books by Kentucky authors on the sunroom bookshelves, or crafts from regional artisans. Barbara has decorated with a charming mix of antiques and Appalachian crafts with a homey feeling.

Hillary, a Jack Russell terrier, rules Snug Hollow from a comfy chair.

Hillary, a Jack Russell terrier, rules Snug Hollow from a comfy chair.

And indeed, sinking into the downy bed of the Pearl Room, I feel like I’m back in my old Kentucky home, where I spent my childhood. There are fresh-cut forsythia and cherry blossoms in vases on the antique dressers (I visited in April), and the night-time hoots of a barred owl and frogs croaking in the brook. Outside, the sky is a firmament of stars invisible in the city.

Music of Nature

In the dewy morning, I cozy into my terry robe, grab some coffee and sit in a rocker on my private balcony, which is just at tree level—perfect for bird-watching. I spot a red cardinal, Kentucky’s state bird, and get nostalgic. Cardinals don’t migrate to Colorado, so it’s been a blue moon since I’ve seen one of these beauties.

Early in the morning, the birdsongs are a literal symphony. Goldfinches flit at eye level in the treetops. An olive-and-grey Eastern phoebe catches an insect from it perch.

The living room at this rural Kentucky bed and breakfast

The living room at this rural Kentucky bed and breakfast

With the help of a bird book and the binoculars in my bedroom, I identify a tufted titmouse, Eastern bluebirds, chickadees and a kingbird. In the field below, a tom turkey gobbles and displays his full tail feathers to the disinterested hens.

“I fall in love with this place all over again every day,” says Barbara of the natural and homemade beauty of her farm and B&B.

And I can see why. I’ve fallen in love with Snug Hollow B&B too during my all-too-brief stay. And though I’m a little sad when it’s time to leave, I take comfort knowing I’ll be back someday. This is one place too special not to revisit.

What makes Snug Hollow environmentally sound:

Innkeeper Barbara Napier (on the cabin porch) is the perfect host and a fabulous cook.

Innkeeper Barbara Napier (on the cabin porch) is the perfect host and a fabulous cook.

  • Recycling
  • Food is local and/or organic; most comes from the on-site garden
  • Passive solar heating and wood fire (wood from the property)
  • New farmhouse built from salvaged materials
  • Restoration of historic cabin (now a guest house)
  • Polite signs in bathrooms reminding guests to conserve water by taking short showers and flushing the toilet only when necessary

Laurel Kallenbach, writer and editor

Update: Now you can cook organic farm-fresh cuisine like that served at Snug Hollow. Barbara Napier has just published her first cookbook, Hot Food and Warm Memories: A Cookbook from Snug Hollow Farm Bed & Breakfast.

Appalachian instruments and antiques decorate Snug Hollow.

Appalachian instruments and antiques decorate Snug Hollow.