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Traditional fish boils are an integral part of Door County culture and have been one of the area’s most alluring tourist attractions for more than 70 years. The simplicity of the meal is enhanced by each restaurant's own quirks and personal styles of boiling the fish, but in general, boilers use fresh-caught Lake Michigan whitefish and offer up Door County cherry pie to round out the meal, making this a truly authentic Door County experience.
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A big part of the fish boil experience is understanding the basics of what your boil master is adding to the pot. Locally caught whitefish is boiled on an open fire, in an outdoor community-style kitchen, usually in a large metal kettle.
The first step is to add salt to the water and bring it to a boil. Next come the potatoes. Once the potatoes are cooked, onions are added (this step varies from boil to boil).
Last, but not least, the star of the show, Lake Michigan whitefish, is added. Once the fish are just about ready, the boil master will signal that the boil over is about to start, which is the fiery spectacle that occurs when kerosene is thrown onto the fire. The mild whitefish, potatoes and onion are served with melted butter, lemon wedges, coleslaw or salad, bread, and a slice of fresh-baked Door County cherry pie.
Restaurants offering fish boils are spread out from the northern tip of the peninsula all the way to Sturgeon Bay, making it easy for visitors to find a place to try it, no matter where they stay on the peninsula. Because Door County fish boils are so popular, many restaurants recommend calling ahead for reservations, especially for large groups.
As much as fish boils are a part of Door County’s popular culture, the act of fish boiling is actually a part of settler history.
Fish boiling was brought to the peninsula in the late 1800s by Scandinavian immigrants who needed an economical way to feed large groups of workers. Many places and cultures have their own style or version of a fish boil, but the one tourists see today is based off of what the Scandinavian settlers used. It wasn’t until about 1961 that the fish boil that is used today became a popular tourist attraction. Lawrence and Annette Wickman started boiling at The Viking in Ellison Bay, followed by owners at the White Gull Inn in Fish Creek.
It’s not uncommon for locals to celebrate weddings, graduations, and community gatherings with a traditional fish boil, demonstrating the power of this simple meal and how it connects today’s families to those who came before them.
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