Boiling Point: The fiery Door County fish boil tradition has deep and native roots

// Photo by Becca Dilley

It’s early June, and rain is falling near the tip of Wisconsin’s Door County peninsula. Despite the wet weather and a persistent wind, more than two dozen spectators are gathered together in a damp little community facing the water, awaiting the climax of a local ritual that dates back at least 350 years.

At five o’clock sharp, the fish boil’s storyteller tugs a rope and the old school bell mounted in front of Rowleys Bay Resort clangs away merrily. That’s the cue for boilmaster Kyle Ouradnik to pour kerosene on the wood fire beneath the 20-gallon steel kettle that holds the night’s feast of potatoes, onions, and whitefish steaks.

The modest blaze becomes a raging fire giant, blooming and billowing against the Lake Michigan skyline. As the fire starts to fade back to normal proportions, the now-superheated water inside the kettle foams up and overflows its confines, sizzling onto the burning wood. With the top layer of water comes the oil that has cooked out of the fish, ensuring a cleaner, lighter-tasting fish at dinner.

The fish boil has reached its climax; all that’s left to do is troop back inside to the warmth of the lodge and eat.

Three traditions married over open flames

Since the establishment of the Viking Grill fish boil in Ellison Bay in 1960, commercial fish boils have been a mainstay of Door County tourism. There are at least nine still going strong in towns from Sturgeon Bay to Fish Creek to Ellison Bay, including a tradition at the White Gull Inn that dates back to roughly the same time as the Viking Grill’s fish boil. Most Door County boils still use whitefish, but some feature cod, crab, or even lobster.

Don Payne storyteller at Rowleys Bay Resort // Photo by Becca Dilley

The fish boil, says Rowleys Bay Resort storyteller Don Payne, “has a strong sense of place, and that’s awfully important to people generally.” Payne, who is an emeritus associate professor of English at Iowa State University, revolves his presentation around three points: local history, geology, and the story of the Lake Michigan whitefish. Beyond that, he tells his story in character as the curmudgeonly Peter Rowley, the settler for whom the nearby bay is named.

“When we first started telling stories here, it was just about the fish boil and how we do it, and maybe a little about Rowleys Bay,” says resort owner and manager Jewel Peterson Ouradnik. In 1970, her family took over the resort (which was founded 1948) and changed its name from Rowleys Bay Resort to Wagon Trail Resort. “But then about 10 years ago we did the name change and went back to Rowleys Bay Resort, and we said, ‘You know what? Let’s bring Peter Rowley back to life, he sounds like a fun character.’”

Contemporary documentation of the Door County fish boil focuses exclusively on white settlers, mostly Scandinavians, who established the practice as it’s known today. But Payne’s presentation at Rowleys Bay Resort makes an important connection to pre-colonial practices, namely those of the Potawatomi people, who lived up and down the peninsula from the early 17th century until the Indian Removal Act of 1830 began a process of displacement that extended into the early 20th century.

A 1940 book called “The Indians of the Western Great Lakes 1615–1760,” written by W. Vernon Kinietz of the University of Michigan, contains accounts of native peoples around the Great Lakes feasting on whitefish. Of the Potawatomi, Kinietz writes:

When food was plentiful the Potawatomi had frequent feasts. These were given for a variety of reasons, such as success in hunting, or the welcome of strangers. [The French explorer Baron de] Lahontan described a feast he attended among the Potawatomi as consisting of four courses. The first platter contained two whitefish boiled in water; the second, the boiled tongue and breast of a deer; the third, two woodhens, the hind feet of a bear, and the tail of a beaver; the fourth, a large quantity of broth made of several sorts of meat. 

The book also documents other peoples of the Great Lakes practicing something evocative of a modern fish boil. It quotes Gabriel Sagard, a French missionary who died in 1640 and documented a Huron community on the southern shore of Lake Huron:

Sometimes they put aside the biggest and fattest Assihendos [whitefish], and set them to boil away in great kettles in order to get the oil from them, which they skim off from the top of the boiling mass with a spoon and put into bottles like our calabashes. This oil is as sweet and nice as fresh butter, moreover it comes from a very good fish unfamiliar to the Canadians and even less known over here [in France].

Even as white settlers and their government displaced the Potawatomi from their lands, boiled whitefish remained a part of the food culture in Door County, with Scandinavian immigrants bringing a similar cooking tradition with them from their home countries. Early Icelandic arrivals to Washington Island in 1870 brought with them a fish, onion, and potato stew tradition that melded with the Native American method of boiling whitefish in kettles over open fires into what we recognize today as the fish boil. The fish boil became more prevalent with the boom in commercial fishing that helped define Door County’s economy in the late 1800s through the early 1900s.

A fisherman named Cliff Wenniger helped establish the tradition in the early part of the 20th century. “At the end of the season, when things started slowing down, he’d have a big fish boil for all his crew and their families in late July or early August,” says Payne, referring to Wenniger’s Door County fishing fleet that at its peak contained at least 20 boats.

“There was a story of a guy named Willie Johnson from Ellison Bay who died in 1960; he was 97 years old,” recalls Payne. “He told a story about when he was a young man in the 1880s, and he went out in late December on a boat and the ice, the wind shifted and the ice trapped him out there. But he had a pot-bellied stove on the boat as most of them did in cold weather, and he had a pail he could dip up some water from the lake and boil it, and he’d taken potatoes with him and he had salt.”

So it was that salt, potatoes, and whitefish kept the fisherman alive. “He did that for seven days before the ice shifted and freed him up so could get back,” says Payne. “There are so many stories like that of fishermen being out and being trapped, and they survived with these fish boils. You could have a nutritious meal that could keep you going.”

Johnson’s seven-day fish boil is the heart of the tradition: taking water, fish, potatoes, and little else, and making it into a sustaining meal. In the years that have followed, the fish boil has accumulated other trappings, however. “The menu of the fish boil is very specific,” says Jewel Ouradnik. “The potatoes go in first, then the onions, then the fish. The other items that are traditional are rye bread, coleslaw, and cherry pie. […] That’s what’s been served at church dinners, those six items.”

In that list of items is contained a nearly perfect map of Door County’s traditions: the whitefish (native peoples), the cherry pie (modern Door County), the coleslaw (Germany and beyond), and the potatoes and onions and rye bread (largely Scandinavian).

In the way that the fish boil has progressed from private feasts (at the turn of the 20th century) to church basement fundraisers (in the middle of the 20th century) to a tourism and travel windfall (the 1960s through the present day), it echoes a host of similar traditions around the country. Everything from the pasties of the Upper Peninsula and Iron Range to the clambakes of the East Coast to the barbecue tradition in the South walks a similar path—from private to semi-public, and then economically vital, helping to define a sense of place and history as it evolves.

Full plate from the buffet of the fish boil at Rowleys Bay Resort// Photo by Becca Dilley

The meal itself

From a culinary perspective, if you’re considering attending a fish boil the main question you should ask yourself is whether you like lobster.

Kyle Ouradnik chef at Rowls Bay Resort // Photo by Becca Dilley

The meat of boiled whitefish is lighter and more delicate than lobster meat, but once introduced to clarified butter, the flavor is a nearly perfect match. Years ago, we visited the fish boil at the Old Post Office restaurant in Fish Creek and were nonplussed by all the pale whiteness on the plate—fish, potatoes, onions: massively monochromatic. But with the first bite, we saw the appeal.

The version at Rowleys Bay Resort is similar, although they make a point of serving a large scratch-made buffet with other options (including roasted chicken and Swedish meatballs) for guests not enchanted by fish. (Adult guests pay $23.50 for the performance and buffet; kids up to 12 pay $1.50 per year of age.)

Those not eating the fish are missing out on a good deal of the point, however. Of the whitefish, Ouradnik says: “It’s caught commercially in nets, on both sides of the peninsula. They have special fishing boats for this purpose with gill nets. They process it in Gills Rock and deliver it right before our fish boil night, so it’s fresh every time. That’s what we boil up.” 

Ouradnik hails from a family of 12 children, which has translated to the resort’s culinary philosophy. “Whatever we have left over we use to make our delicious whitefish chowder,” she says. “A lot of what we’ve done here is what you’d do at home—you make chicken one day, chicken soup the next. We grew up in such a large family that’s how we did it.“

Ouradnik’s sense of bustling community is reflected in the gathering of newcomers and friends that defines Rowleys Bay Resort. And nowhere is it reflected more brightly or directly than in the fish boil tradition that lives on in front of the resort, where strangers and family alike gather around a giant kettle and take one judicious step backward, united in caution under the light of a skyward culinary fireball. 

All In the Timing: Anatomy Of a Fish Boil

3:30pm: The boilmaster puts a large kettle of water onto a fire.

4:30pm: Potatoes and salt are added.

4:45pm: Onions are added.  

4:55pm: A basket of whitefish steaks is added.

4:59pm: The old-school bell in front of Rowleys Bay Resort is rung by the storyteller, signaling the boil over.

5:00pm: Kerosene is tossed onto the fire by the boilmaster, creating a plume of fire and smoke and pushing the top layer of oily water out of the kettle and onto the fire, partially quenching it. The basket of food is removed from the kettle, and the potatoes, onions, and fish are readied for service to the assembled crowd.

5:15pm: The dining room buffet is opened to guests, with whitefish, potatoes, onions, roasted chicken, cherry pie-style bars, salads, soups, clarified butter, and more available for the taking.

Editor’s Note: Rowleys Bay Resort provided lodging to The Growler’s writer and photographer.

Recipe for Pocket-Sized Fish Boil 

Pocket sized fish boil // Photos by Becca Dilley

By James Norton

Serves 2 

Should you wish to create the flavor of a Door County fish boil without the kerosene, call your local fishmonger (we talked to Coastal Seafoods) and request lake whitefish from Lake Superior or Lake Michigan. This recipe is dead simple and creates a dish with clean, mild flavors. Clarified butter brings the fish to a place surprisingly close to lobster, and salt, pepper, and lemon can develop additional nuances. We didn’t dump or boil off the fish oils for this recipe, but neither did we taste them; the fish-to-water ratio seems to mean that there isn’t enough oil to affect flavor.

Ingredients

¼ cup salt for each gallon of water
1 pound of Lake Superior or Lake Michigan whitefish, scaled, gutted, head and fins removed, chunked into roughly
2-by-3-inch pieces with skin on, bones in
1 pound small yellow or fingerling potatoes, scrubbed with peels on, cut in half
1 pound pearl or other small onions, peeled
Clarified butter to serve (one stick)
1 lemon, cut into wedges to serve
Salt and pepper to serve

Directions

1. Bring a large pot of water to low boil with salt.

2. Add potatoes and onions and boil 20 minutes or until done (fork slides in easily).

3. Add whitefish pieces in strainer or other basket (to protect fish from agitation by potatoes and onions) and cook for 3–5 minutes, until flesh
is white.

4. Remove fish, onions, and potatoes, and serve with clarified butter, lemon, salt, and pepper.


Read more chef profiles and get other great recipes in The Growler’s Minnesota Spoon column here.

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