Tell me if you saw the above scene would you:
- To run?
- Call the fire department?
- Take a quick photo and then get ready for a good meal?
If you are in Door County, Wisconsin, the answer to the question is option 3.
Door County is a 70-mile peninsula in northeastern Wisconsin between Green Bay and Lake Michigan. About 4 hours north of Chicago, it encompasses the area from Sturgeon Bay on the south, where the peninsula is about 18 miles wide, and narrows to the northernmost tip between Gills Rock and Northport, where it is less than 2 miles wide.
This particular area is famous for beautiful landscapes and charming towns. Being so close to the bay and lake means you are never more than a 15 minute drive from the water allowing for miles of coastline and glorious sunrises and sunsets. It has been dubbed “The Cape Cod of the Midwest”. And it’s bursting with old-world Scandinavian charm (goats on the roof, anyone?), decor, and traditions, including a unique dining experience: cooking fish.
What is a fish cooker?
Many restaurants offer cooked fish as a menu item, but not as such. In Door County, locally caught whitefish from Lake Michigan are the star of a fish boil. It all takes place in the great outdoors and begins with an extra large black saltwater cauldron being placed over an open fire. As the water boils, the “Boilmaster” drops a pile of small potatoes and onions into the water, and at just the right time, also drops the fish into the same bubbling, boiling water.
Everything cooks together until about 7 minutes later the oil from the whitefish rises to the top of the cauldron for the climax of the event: the master cook adds kerosene to the flames, creating the dramatic ‘boil over’. The fish oil spills over the side and meets the flames, everything roars in supreme drama and the master chef knows the fish and ingredients are cooked to perfection!
From humble beginnings
Fish bumps were born out of necessity, in the power of community. In the late 1800s, Swedish immigrants were looking for an inexpensive way to support their growing families and/or large groups of workers. White fish was plentiful in local waters and a logical choice to feed a crowd. Fish cooking was born out of practicality rather than pageantry. It wasn’t until the early 1960’s that it became a popular tourist attraction and began to grow into the allure it is today.
Today’s fish is cooking
Although you’ll find some variation, a traditional seafood chef’s menu includes steak(s) of fresh white fish (skin, bone-in), red baby potatoes, small white onions, and fresh bread that may include a savory choice like rye and/or sweet breads like pumpkin or lemon. For dessert, you’ll love freshly baked Door County Cherry Pie (à la mode, if you will!) in honor of cherries, which are another part of the peninsula’s bounty.
Pro Tips: For non-fish fans, restaurants also offer chicken, spare ribs or another alternative. And kids or grandkids who might enjoy the spectacle of the cooked fish but not the result can default to hot dogs or chicken strips.
Best Door County Fish Boils
Fish boils are a classic Door County experience. Destination Door County lists eight establishments they offer, including the Log Den and Viking Grill & Lounge. These restaurants stretch from Sturgeon Bay in the south to Rowleys Bay in the northeastern part of the peninsula. I can speak for the fantastic fish stock at the Old Post Office restaurant.
Old post restaurant cooking fish
On the recommendation of my friend Jane, we made reservations at the Old Post Office in Ephraim. They offer (indoor and) outdoor seating overlooking the bay, and the weather was beautiful that mid-September evening. And how often can you eat in a converted post office restaurant?
We had a reservation for 5:30pm but were told to be there at least half an hour early to hear the chef talk about the history, his work and the preparations for our feast. We sat outside on wooden benches set up in a large square a safe distance from the central cauldron, and the fire was already raging. When we arrived, potatoes and onions were already in and everything was cooking.
The chef master is part chef, part showman, and I’m not sure which part is bigger. They definitely need to know what they’re doing. Timing is critical to the success of the meal, and all elements must be just right. In the preparations and explanations you will not see much pomp and decency; you hear a lot of passion and heart for the craft.
As the cauldron boiled, the master chef joked that early immigrants never imagined that one day crowds would gather to hear and see the food preparation, which was a normal life practice. He spoke about the contracts the Old Post Office has with local fishermen for the white fish and how this creates a steady demand for the abundant fish.
When it came time to add the whitefish to the potatoes and onions, the master chef announced that he would bring the basket of whitefish steaks over to us.
In with the fish and 7 minutes later, the boiling master performed the kerosene toss, which boils a fish into a roaring spectacle!
And then… it’s time to eat. We had reserved at an outdoor table. Those who called earlier than us (first come, first served) were given the coveted tables closer to the water, namely Green Bay.
The fish is flaky, tender, and has a subtle, mild flavor that’s enhanced somewhat by melted butter (you control the amount) and your choice of shakers of various condiments at the table, including salt and pepper. The breads are fresh and baked in the shop or on site. Top off the experience with a locally brewed beer or a glass of Door County wine. A fish cookout is a unique meal that is enhanced by the overall preparation and cooking experience.
Pro tip: One benefit of cooking fish at Alte Post is that your server will offer to remove the bones from the fish if you request it. Boning the tender fish isn’t difficult, but it’s still great service.
Tips for trying a Door County Fish Boil
The best time of year for a fish cooker is whenever they serve one! Some restaurants continue the practice year-round, but everything slows down in Door County in the winter. So be sure to make a reservation by phone and inquire about the current fish cooking times. Calling is important – most of these are small mom and pop establishments so their websites may not have the most up to date information.
Some restaurants, like the Old Post Office, offer indoor and outdoor seating, and you can specify which you prefer based on availability. They strive to accommodate groups.
In general, I prefer anything in Door County to be in the off-season – April/May or September. Summer is very busy, small towns are booming, reservations can be hard to find and streets are crowded.
A fish boil is a Door County classic. How can something taste so good from a fiery cauldron? Maybe it’s the fresh air. Maybe it’s because of the scenic surroundings. Maybe it’s the company you keep. Whatever the reason, it’s great fun exploring a classic Wisconsin seafood cookout, a truly delicious Door County experience not to be missed.
Bonus: A sunset in Door County
Find out sunset times and plan your cooked fish dinner so you have time to catch a dramatic sunset at Sven’s Bluff lookout in Peninsula State Park. Vignettes are required for motor vehicles, but the view alone is easily worth the price of admission.