The Wisconsin Fish Boil


Culinary Drama with Kerosene
Door County, Wisconsin

Cape Cod of the Midwest

North of the Tension Line

Lake Michigan peninsula with 300 miles of shoreline,
5 state parks, 19 county parks, 11 lighthouses, 53 beaches,
2 islands

Best reason to go:

Favorite local fare:
Whitefish cooked over a kerosene-inspired wood fire

“Cauldron” and “Inferno” are words seldom found in cookbooks. But vacations have a way of turning the commonplace into entertainment, and both terms are part of the Door County, Wisconsin recipe for an event called a Fish Boil. Should you ever find yourself up there North of the Tension Line, consider including one on the itinerary.

The tradition began as necessity among the Scandinavian settlers of northernmost Wisconsin more than a century ago. They didn’t have much, but they had woodstoves, water and fresh fish. Boiled fish was an easy, accessible meal for lumberjacks and fisherman – not people you want to hang around with when they’re hungry.

The recipe remains largely intact today. And the action still takes place outdoors.



Lake Michigan Whitefish, preferably caught the same day

Small red potatoes

Sweet Spanish onions

Salt to taste (say, a pound)

20 gallons of water


The Boil Master – don’t look for that title on a Cordon Bleu application – cooks for a while, chatting up the crowd to build anticipation.

And then, as the kids like to say, BOOM! He tosses a coffee can full of kerosene onto the wood fire, causing a conflagration that’ll curl nose hairs at 30 yards. Car alarms sound.  Birds fall from the sky.

Perhaps that overstates the culinary denouement, but the truth is, we have seen teenagers pocket their smartphones and look up.

More than just theater is at work here. The heat of the fireball suddenly streaking skyward causes a fourth of the water in the cauldron to evaporate and boil over, shedding the fatty oils on the surface and yielding tender, flaky fish.

And then it’s time to eat. Season to taste. Replace hat on head. It’s summertime in the Midwest. Enjoy.

Nelsen’s Hall Bitter’s Pub & Restaurant
The oldest continuously running saloon in Wisconsin.

At the northern tip of Door County you can drive onto a car ferry, cross Death’s Door and join the club.

SIdebar: The Bitter’s Club, at Nelsen’s Hall. It claims thousands of members worldwide: people who have stepped up to the elegant, 1850s-era bar in the place and downed a shot glass of Angostura Bitters.

The story goes that during Prohibition, Tom Nelsen obtained a pharmacist’s license so as to legally dispense 90 proof Angostura bitters as a stomach tonic. Desperate times, desperate measures, as they say.

Should you go, send us a photo of your membership card.

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Photo credit: LearningLark / / CC BY

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