November 21, 2016 (Photos: Door County CVB.)
On the surface, the concept of a fish boil sounds pretty unappealing. The preparation of relatively flavorless and fatty whitefish boiled in a huge kettle with only salt, potatoes and onions as flavoring elements is akin to a cajun shrimp boil with all the funk and fun removed. But in truth, the story of the Great Lakes culinary tradition is a matter of tremendous pride in the area of Wisconsin that includes Door County, the thumb of the mitten of the state when viewed on a map.
Fish boils go back hundreds of years to the 1600s, when explorers and traders first encountered Native Americans in the forests around Lake Michigan. There are conflicting opinions as to whether the Potowatomi tribe initiated the practice of boiling whitefish in huge pots or if it came from the influence of Scandinavian settlers who populated the upper Midwest. Those who favor the Native American origin story point to the fact that the Potowatomi were a fishing people who recognized the value of the oils and fats that separate from the meat of the fish during the boiling process. The specific cooking process of a fish boil allows for those products to be collected during what is called the “boilover,” when a sudden spike in cooking temperature causes the water to overflow the pot.Boilover!
Scandinavians didn’t go out of their way to collect these fats and oils, preferring to allow them to wash away in the boilover. This process leaves behind nothing but clean, sweet fish flesh, even if it does need a hearty ladleful of lemon juice and butter to make it more flavorful. Now, fish boils are more of a tourist attraction, held alfresco at lakefront resorts around Door County. Guests arrive by the busload to gather on benches around the huge cauldron hung over an open fire to hear the stories of the region and the ritual. It’s traditional and appropriate to stop in the resort’s bar first to pick up what they call a “vacation drink,” usually something fruity with a paper umbrella in it or a bracing brandy old-fashioned.
Leading the process is the head cook, known as the boilmaster. This officiant must keep a constant eye on the fire as well as the clock, adding the various ingredients at exactly the proper time to ensure they are cooked through while also bringing the fish boil to a dramatic conclusion in time to stock the smorgasbord in the dining room for supper.
A proper fish boil has only four ingredients besides the water in the pot. The first, and most important, is salt. The salt is not primarily used as a flavoring agent, but rather to raise the specific gravity of the water to allow the oils of the fish to float to the surface during the boil. They are not timid with the use of NaCl, using a half pound of salt for each gallon of water. Quartered onions and red potatoes are added to the cauldron at specific points during the boil as the boilmaster adjusts the ferocity of the fire with studied splashes of kerosene into the inferno.A bell — often steeped in history, like this one at Rowley’s — plays an integral role in any fish boil.
The final ingredient is whitefish, usually caught within a short trawl of the resort and cut into skin-on chunks with bones and all. (Pro tip: When picking from the buffet, go for the tails for a better meat-to-bone ratio.) After 7 to 10 minutes in the boiling water, the boilmaster looks for the roiling water to reach the short strokes. When he deems the time is right, he announces, “Boilover!” and moves the assembled crowd upwind. At Rowley’s Bay Resort, they ring the original schoolhouse bell from the 1800s to signal that the highlight of the show has arrived. With a final splash of kerosene, the boilmaster achieves the dramatic temperature spike by creating a huge fireball that causes the water to surge over the edges of the pot, spilling grease and oils all over the ground around the fire.
After taking 100 photos, the crowd retires to the warmth of the dining hall to feast on a full buffet of the fish and all the requisite salads and sides that make up a true smorgasbord. The proper way to enjoy your whitefish is drizzled with lemon juice and dunked in ramekins of drawn butter, like a Cheesehead lobster. And really, what doesn’t taste good dipped in butter?The finished product! A fish-boil plate at Rowley’s Bay.
The history of the Door County fish boil started as a way for the original residents of the region to collect those essential oils from the plentiful whitefish that they netted from canoes in Lake Michigan. Later, fish boils became the method of choice to quickly feed a mess hall full of strapping Scandinavian loggers and fishermen. Now it’s pretty much a show for tourists who enjoy the conflagration and the conspicuous consumption of fossil fuels. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
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