Wisconsin Fish Boil: Local Food with Local Flair

A local culinary tradition passed down from the Scandinavian settlers of Door County, Wisconsin, 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.

Door County’s eco-friendly White Gull Inn serves a local fish boil on Fridays. ©Laurel Kallenbach

My friends and I attended the Friday- night fish boil at the White Gull Inn in the town of Fish Creek in Door County. When we arrived, the red potatoes had already been boiling for a couple of hours over the fire right outside.

Soon someone announced that it was time for the fish to go into the pot, so I bundled up and braved the cold outside to watch. (though the flames were 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 many 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. (This is 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.

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 Christianson throws kerosene on the fire to boil off the fish oils in the pots. ©Laurel Kallenbach

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 the just-cooked potatoes and fish. ©Laurel Kallenbach

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 woman 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?

Originally posted: December 2009

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance travel writer

Photo courtesy of The White Gull Inn in Door County, Wisconsin

Sleigh Bells Jingle in Door County, Wisconsin

John Mayberry's sleigh rides depart from the Orchard Country Winery.

John Mayberry's sleigh rides depart from the Orchard Country Winery.

One of the highlights of my trip to Door County, Wisconsin, was going dashing through the snow in a two-horse open sleigh. John Mayberry, owner of Mayberry’s Carriages gives sleigh rides through Lautenbach’s Orchard Country Winery near Fish Creek—and it’s a not-to-be-missed winter festivity.

The bracing cold air makes you feel alive as the massive Belgian horses whisk you past the red 100-year-old dairy barn, rows of grape vines, cherry and apple orchards, and into the woods. You can delve under lap blankets on the sleigh’s wooden benches to stay warm while John narrates the winery’s history, including the 1950s and ’60s heyday when Door County became known as “Cherryland USA” because it grew 95 percent of the tart cherries in the United States.

Bundled up, we're ready for the ride.

Bundled up, we're ready for the ride.

The beautiful snow and blue sky are accompanied by the ringing of sleigh bells, which just naturally makes you jolly. No wonder Santa laughs so much.

The Fruits of Summer—Enjoyed in Winter

After the sleigh ride, our group browsed in the Orchard Country Winery store, which sells just about every food you can think of that uses cherries: cherry wine, Montmorency cherry juice, cherry salsa, frozen and canned cherries, cherry honey-mustard pretzel dip, cherry jam, cherry vinaigrette, cherry raspberry pie filling, cherry chocolate topping (for ice cream), cherry barbecue sauce, cherry almond scone mix, cherry jalapeño spread—and even cherry popcorn.

Many of Orchard Country Winery's wines are decorated with awards they've won.

Many of Orchard Country Winery's wines are decorated with awards they've won.

I tasted six wines—everything from Cherry Chardonnay (a cherry/ grape blend that’s only faintly cherry flavored) to Cherry Blossom (100 percent cherries) with a rich cherry taste. The Winter Wine—an estate-grown Montmorency cherry wine spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves—was one of my favorites, especially after being outside in the cold.

Because one of the joys of traveling is carrying home some of the local foods or beverages as souvenirs, I brought home a bottle of Winter Wine for my family to celebrate with on Christmas.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Feel free to share your most treasured memories of flavors from your travels.

I love the naked architecture of trees and the quaint barns in Door County. This red one belongs to Orchard County Winery.

Organic Christmas Cookies and More

Lunch at the Bluefront Café in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, equals yum! This cheery, brightly colored café makes the most out of banks of lovely windows and its clean modern décor. (It also displays an energetic print of Renoir’s painting “The Oarsmen’s Breakfast”—a tip of the hat to the lake-faring folk of Door County.)

All but one of Susan Guthrie’s festive cherry cookies was snatched up by my friends before I could get my camera out to take this photo.

All but one of Susan Guthrie’s festive cherry cookies was snatched up by my friends before I could get my camera out to take this photo.

The Bluefront was the perfect dining spot—with local and organic food on the menu and local artists’ work on the walls.

I sampled the tasty, tangy Asian chicken wrap—a rollup of fresh cabbage, veggies, cashews and chicken with a sesame-ginger dipping sauce. One of my travel companions swooned over the fresh spinach salad with pecans, Neuske Wisconsin smokehouse bacon and goat cheese. And the fish tacos—featuring local Lake Michigan whitefish—are apparently the most requested item on the menu.

Chef/owner Susan Guthrie wholeheartedly supports sustainable business, dreams of installing solar panels on the restaurant’s roof, lovingly renovated an old building to create the restaurant, and buys about 50 percent of her ingredients from organic producers (more in summer months when it’s readily available.) She even offers earth-friendly straws for sipping your iced tea or natural soda.

Despite the wonderful lunch entrees, the highlight of the dining experience, I must admit, was the plate of Christmas cookies Susan set on our table. We all reveled in shortbread cookies with chunks of Door County tart cherries baked in, melt-in-your-mouth molasses cookies sprinkled with powdered sugar, and a chocolate-peppermint cookie that will forever set the standard for me. The cookie had an almost-but-not-quite-brownie texture and contained the ideal peppermint-to-chocolate ratio. Sheer Christmas heaven!!!

Weigh in (pun intended) on your favorite Christmas dessert by leaving a comment below.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

The Bluefront is located in a historic building in downtown Sturgeon Bay.

The Bluefront is located in a historic building in downtown Sturgeon Bay.

Door County’s Most Romantic B&B: Eagle Harbor Inn

Ready for sledding? Welcome to old-fashioned country Eagle Harbor Inn.

Welcome to old-fashioned country Eagle Harbor Inn.

Eagle Harbor Inn, located in the quaint Door County, Wisconsin, town of Ephraim, is the cutest, most romantic place I’ve ever stayed—and in December it’s decorated in full Christmas regalia to boot.

As the temperatures outdoors hovered at 8 degrees, I’m cozied up under a forest-green throw in front of a roaring fire that the innkeeper built just for me in the Fireplace Room. (Too bad my husband was unable to come on this trip; it would have been the icing on the cake if he were by my side, sharing a glass of wine.)

As I sip tea and nibble on some homemade peanut brittle, the embers are crackling and Christmas music plays softly in the background. Evergreen-and-ribbon garlands wind through the stair banusters; candy canes peep out of confectionary boxes.

I enjoyed writing this blog entry by the fire.

I enjoyed writing by the crackling fire.

In the adjacent sitting room, the floor-to-ceiling Christmas tree is decorated in a nostalgic, traditional way that makes me feel right at home. It’s not a bushy tree—there’s lots of space between boughs—and the decorations are simple: popcorn strands, a few colored ornaments, old-fashioned colored lights, antique cookie-cutter ornaments. No fancy color schemes. Just a simple tree. It’s all so beautiful that I want to cry.

On one table is a three-quarters-finished jigsaw puzzle of an Amish snow scene—begging me to sit and find the next piece to fit into the picture. On the coffee table in front of the Christmas tree is a Scrabble board that invites a couple to settle in and match their vocabulary skills.

Antique cookie cutters decorate the Eagle Harbor's Christmas tree.

Cookie-cutter tree ornaments

Eagle Harbor Hospitality

As if all this country inn atmosphere weren’t enough, I’m staying in the lovely Serena room, which features a fireplace—gas, not real wood like the one I’m enjoying at the moment—a lovely four-poster bed and a two-person Jacuzzi tub.

The Serena room is named after one of the former owners: Serena Christiansen, who grew up in Norway and arrived in Ephraim in 1884. She and her husband, Ole, turned their home into an inn they named Hillside Hotel, which eventually accommodated 40 people.

All ready for Santa

All ready for Santa

The biography on my bed stand says Serena “had the laundry done by 6 a.m., breakfast prepared by 8 a.m.—and she baked pies, muffins, rolls, cakes and 14 loaves of bread a day in addition to meal preparation, milking the cows, and tending to the guests.” Serena’s tireless hospitality lives on today at the Eagle Harbor Inn.

Cheery, Cherry Breakfast

Nothing kicks off a sunny winter morning like a good breakfast, and the Eagle Harbor’s are top-notch. Every day they serve homemade granola with dried cherries (cherries are famous in Door County). Yesterday I enjoyed cherry-stuffed French toast, which was truly decadent. It was accompanied by cherry juice, naturally!

Cherry-stuffed French toast with Wisconsin smokehouse bacon and maple pecan butter was heavenly.

Cherry-stuffed French toast with Wisconsin smokehouse bacon and maple pecan butter

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

P.S. I’m so carried away by the romance of the Eagle Harbor Inn that I nearly overlooked the fact that it’s certified green by Travel Green Wisconsin, a voluntary program that certifies and recognizes tourism businesses that are committed to reducing their environmental impact. Travel Green Wisconsin awards points for various social and environmental measures followed; you can see the ratings of all participating Wisconsin businesses on the website.

P.P.S. Share with other readers your most romantic destination by leaving a comment below.

The Eagle harbor inn has romantic rooms, a pool, sauna, and conference center.

The Eagle harbor inn has romantic rooms and suites, a pool, sauna, and fitness room.