The history of the fish boil comes from several places. Some say it’s the area’s interpretation of the New England Crab Boil. Others claim it’s something uniquely Scandinavian. A place in Ellison Bay called the Viking Grill is allegedly home to the original Door County Fish Boil. Word is that the folks who ran the place wanted to duplicate the trout boils local churches would sometimes hold. One way or another, if you glance at a tourist card rack anywhere around there you’ll see ad cards for various fish boils around the area.
On an overcast Monday evening my party reached the Old Post Office Restaurant in Ephraim (that’s pronounced “e-from”), Wisconsin, a sweet and comfortable little town on the Green Bay side of the Door County peninsula. The building that houses the restaurant once housed the post office (hence the name) and sits prettily on Highway 42 across from Eagle Harbor. We were pointed around to the back of the building, to an area across the parking lot, where a crowd was forming on benches in a ring around a kettle.
The kettle itself was bubbling away, a steaming bath of indeterminate ingredients. I looked down inside and thought I might have seen a few potatoes whisking about in the hot bath. Others did the same, coming into the circle and inspecting the kettle atop its fire before taking a seat on the simple benches.
A short time passed, then a rail thin man came gallumping up to the fire, grabbing a piece of wood from the side of the ring and wedging it under the kettle. He started into a monologue that quickly silenced the crowd. He introduced himself as Boilmaster Earl, and started with a welcome to the Old Post Office Restaurant and the Edgewater Resort.
He came out bearing a sieve-like basket full of pre-cut whitefish steaks, which he showed to each of us by walking around the kettle in the circle, showing off the fresh fish.
Earl told us that the kettle is always started off with 20 gallons of water and just under a quart of salt. “The reasons I keep having to keep adding salt with each additional boil, is because in the boil-over process I throw a little less than a quart of kerosene into that fire to boil it over. Therefore we lose half of the water over the side, and naturally some of the salt.
“So I have to replenish that water supply and add more salt to keep the taste in balance. And also that salt helps with the churning of the fish, the potatoes and the onions in the kettle, because the salt has a tendency to make that water foam.”
He punctuated the end of each statement with a raise in his voice, a pop of a syllable on the end of that last word that tugged on the listeners and invited them to lean in a little further.
“And the foam in turn slightly raises the rate of which everything moves around, and the temperature goes up slightly.
“First into the pot we put the little red potatoes. We snip the ends off so the water will penetrate ‘em, and hopefully cook them thoroughly. The potatoes cook for a full 30 minute term.
“Along about 17, 18, 19 minutes into the boil, depending on the size and the harvest, is when we add the onions. If they’re larger they go in much earlier.” He demonstrated with his middle finger and thumb. “If they’re this size they go in around 18.
“Once you hit the 20 minute period into the boil, that’s when we add the fish. The fish have to cook a whole 8 to 11 minutes to be done. If we were to cook the fish less than 8 minutes, chances are not all those fish would get cooked.”
The lilt at the end of each sentence became higher, more staccato, as if we were being given instructions by a Marine sergeant. He thrust his body forward a little with each punctuation as well, popping out those last syllables stronger and stronger as the fish merrily boiled away.
“But! The other side of the coin is, cook them too long over that 10 and a half, eleven minute period, especially if you have a rolling boil, and it would only be a manner of a few additional minutes, and we would have nothing but mush in that kettle. So the name of the game, so to speak, is to get the fish in - and out- in the last ten and a half eleven minutes of that 30 minute boil.”
He kept on adding wood to the base of the kettle, piece after piece as he talked, from time to time scooping one that had fallen over carefully off the ground and back to its place at the base of the kettle.
“At the end of that 30 minute period, we do what’s called a ‘boil over.’ The boil over is not done necessarily as a spectacular sight, even though it’s prepared in sight. The primary reason of the boil over is to increase the kettle’s temperature instantly with the kerosene and therefore force the fish oil to foam, soot and whatever water may be in the kettle at that time, over the side, which leaves you with a nice clean meal. Then we pull it, bring it up front and serve it to you.
“These are Lake Michigan whitefish, normally caught off the north end of the peninsula at Gills Rock, but on the Lake Michigan side of the point, in very deep water, of about 60 to 140 feet of water, in what’s called a trash net, a gill net or a pond net. These nets are used at various times to catch the various fish of various lengths under various conditions, in various areas of the Bay and the lake. The fish are supplied to us daily or semi-daily, by Johnsons Fisheries out of Gills Rock. They normally bring the fish to me in large black tubs, a layer of ice about 60 fish and another layer on top, to make sure all the various restaurants up here get their fish, they’re going to arrive in good shape.
“But when we get ahold of these fish, we take that fish and we cut along the top of ‘em, along the dorsal fin or top fin forward, we cut all the fat out of the top of that fish and throw it away. It’s a piece about three to five inches long. Then we take that fish and cut it up into your two inch wide steaks, the tail of which may be slightly longer in most cases.
“The reason we fashion that fire around the kettle edges you see, is primarily two reasons -- high winds, and heavy rains. The more it storms off that bay, the more I have to start the center of the fire with a lot of your hardwoods, like oak, ash, maple, like birch, popple, elm and so forth, then line the outside the kettle very heavily to prevent the yellin’ winds from puttin’ the fire out or the high winds from using excess wood.”
He answered questions for a few minutes more. I mentally counted them off in my head, coming out at the eight or nine minute mark. The crowd around the ring seemed to be leaning in even closer in anticipation.
He walked over to a small can on the side of the ring and poured from it what I supposed was kerosene into a quart cup. This he carried over to the bay side of the fire, away from where the wind was blowing the smoke. This was the moment. Several others in the crowd also rose to their feet with their cameras as he first hollered “one! Two!” before quietly saying “three” and pouring the liquid onto the fire.
Instantly a fireball blossomed, rolling from the bottom to the top immediately followed by a wave of water coming over every side of the kettle, the quiet “whomp” of igniting fuel followed by the steaming hiss of water rolling over the edge, some evaporating on the outside of the kettle but most splashing on the layer of gravel and ash below. The noise was accompanied by the collective intake of air from lungs all around the fire. “Every once in a while I get a seagull in the pot,” he told us, and a general chuckle of a laugh went around the ring. He dropped the can on the ground, then went around to the other side. An assistant came up on my side with a long cast iron pole. He ran it through the handles of the nested baskets with a metallic clang, then the men picked it up, once, twice and carried it over to a waiting metal washtub, where they let it rest. “Go!” he hollered, waited, then gestured with both hands. “Now you’d better head up there,” he warned us, and the magic spell was broken. The crowd all got to their feet and headed for the front of the whitesided restaurant. The crowd quickly formed a writhing snake at the door, backed up through one of the place’s two dining rooms, a row of hungry tourists and a few locals hungry to try what had come out of the pot. It took a few moments for the fish and potatoes and onions to arrive at the meager table they were to be served from. Much conversation darted back and forth between those in line, some as long as 15 minutes in their wait. As we all waited our turn, we passed the register with its postcards of its famed boil master, pincushions made from little girls’ shoes, oven mitts and dishtowels proudly covered with cherry designs, doilies and jams. Those of us still in line gazed longingly on others already seated. There were few “private” tables; the restaurant sells just about every seat it has with each boil, and strangers shared tables willingly. It was all part of the experience. Once at the front of the line, I encountered the washtub of fish again. A single girl doled out the portions of fish with tongs, two fish steaks to each person with a couple of potatoes and a couple of onions as well. Diners served their own melted butter up. As I came through the line, Earl came through the doors with a fresh batch of fish (cooked up apparently while the tail end of the line waited for dinner). He chunked the pot down, took back the empty tub and returned to scoop up some coleslaw for my plate. I also took a couple of slices of rye bread (the traditional accompaniment), a heel of pumpkin bread and some lemon bread as well. Once seated, I pondered how to eat such a fish. A young man named Carlos appeared like a genie at my left elbow.
“Care for me to debone your fish, ma’am?” “Um, I think I can handle it…” “It can be very hard. May I do it for you?” With such an erstwhile plea, I couldn’t turn him down. But I could take video of what he did so I could learn how to do it myself. I watched as Carlos deftly split each filet in two with my knife and fork, then rolled out each half into two again and slid out the backbone before using the tines of the fork to flake up the meat and search for any additional bones. “You’re really good at this,” I remarked. “Ah, I practice every day,” he told me, “sometimes in my dreams, too.” “Wow.” “Okay, well, be careful. You might find a few more bones in there. Okay?” “Okay. Thank you very much.” “You’re welcome! Enjoy!” He came back a moment later. “I forgot, what would you like to drink?” Considering what I’d been offered everywhere else, I asked “cherry juice?” He laughed. “For dinner comes with one beverage, tea or coffee or lemonade.” “Okay, iced tea please. No lemon.” He was off and gone, and I was left to contemplate the plate in front of me. The fish in its sections seemed so very neat, so clean and perfect, it was hard to believe that less than a half hour earlier these pieces had been bubbling away in an outdoor kettle. I carefully tried a little bit. And I found that the whitefish wasn’t oily, wasn’t dry, wasn’t… well, it was a bit of a blank canvas. Tasty, sure, but far less seasoned than my south Arkansas-bred taste buds had become accustomed to. I suppose growing up on bass and crappie and catfish I’ve become used to heavy breading and salting of my fish. This was airy and light, perhaps not as light as the perch I’d had at the Cookery in Fish Creek the night before but certainly tasty -- especially with a little of that butter and some of the house seasoning on the table. The seasoning itself was similar to Arkansas-favorite Cavendar’s. The potatoes benefited well from the boiling and the melted butter. The onions became somehow sweet while still retaining a good deal of their crunch, best tasted when sliced and speared on a fork with another piece of whitefish. The coleslaw that accompanied the meal was thick with carrots and on the sweet side. I found that the rye bread really did work well with the whitefish, especially with a little real butter smeared across the top. While the meat-to-starch balance was the same as the catfish-and-hush-puppies ratio I’m used to, the taste was very different, very clean and almost elegant… just about elegant enough to rate the fine linens the repast was served upon. The fruit breads were also excellent. I found myself wanting over that lemon bread the most, so light and barely sweet with just the lightest hint of tart. But then there was the cherry pie. I’d been in Door County more than 24 hours and had yet to have cherry pie. In fact, outside the samples I consumed at Orchard County earlier in the day, the only cherry I’d eaten was the one on my special ice cream confection at Wilson’s. What came to the table was something that should have been on the cover of a fine dining magazine, a harmonious picture of dark cherries under an impossibly perfect golden brown crust, all nestled beneath a scoop of rich vanilla ice cream. It was quite simply beautiful, almost but not quite too beautiful to eat. I have to tell you this -- I have never been a cherry pie fan. Where I grew up there were far better choices in my opinion, from Blackapple pies to mincemeat to pear to blackberry, all with their unique and deep fruit bases and particular crusts. But with one taste I discovered why the residents of Door County worship at the alter of the Montmorency. The inherent natural tartness was tempered through the cooking process with just enough sugar and what tasted like a hint of almonds. Wrapped in the crispy, slightly crunchy yet thick buttery flour crust, the filling’s tartness and the sweet of it all was perfect. Best of all, the pie was served warm, and with each spoonful of pie and ice cream I savored that bit of regional divinity, a pie meant for a good strong cup of coffee and sitting on a porch overlooking the bay and its passing light. Except, the bay was obscured by rain. While enjoying the repast, I had completely failed to realize the oncoming storm that had rolled in. The porch quickly filled with a crowd, those folks in the next group waiting for their chance at savoring the fish boil. My party quickly vacated their seats so the wait staff could clear and reset the tables for the next group. As we went to the back to clamber aboard our ride back to the hotel, I saw Earl standing out in the rain, tending the fire under the kettle with no heed to the water pouring down his neck. He threw that kerosene on the fire again, and another small fireball rolled up into the air with its accompanying “whomp” and hiss. If by chance you’re in Door County and find yourself in the town of Ephraim, do yourself a favor and make a reservation at the Old Post Office Restaurant. Don’t just show up -- you’ll only disappoint the folks traveling with you. And if it’s going to rain, take a poncho. For more information, check out the restaurant website or call (920) 854-4034.