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

3 thoughts on “Wisconsin Fish Boil: Local Food with Local Flair

  1. Wonderful piece, Laurel. Not only could I feel the cold and smell the fire, but I was able to imagine savoring the fish in my mouth–sans bones. I, too, worry about fish bones and just love that you added that detail. I’m sold–if I ever find myself in Wisconsin, I will definitely look up the White Gull Inn.

  2. Oh, you’ve made me so hungry! Shall I rush out and buy some fresh fish, red potatoes, and slaw makings? Do you think it’ll be a problem to build a fire on my balcony for the boil? I just don’t think the kerosene thing will work in my kitchen–

    If I ever get to this neck of the woods, you can bet I’ll stop by for a meal like this!

  3. I’ve been in Door County many times but never had the pleasure of a fish boil, so I was delighted to read your account. In fact, I’m enjoying your whole series on Door County, one of my favorite places.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

10 + fifteen =