I’d heard of a fish boil before – it’s hard not to if you’ve ever visited the Door County peninsula in northern Wisconsin. Yet, somehow the concept didn’t stick in my brain. Fish, after all, is a tender protein that would seemingly be the last thing you’d subject to rugged boil.
There must be some kind of glitch, I reasoned—some reason why people would flock to fish boils other than for the pure showmanship of the famed “boil over.” I poked around on the Internet, viewing picture after picture of flames leaping to sky as the water gurgled and spilled from the kettle.
We decided to try out our luck at Pelletier’s, one of the more well-known and long-standing of the fish boils. Turns out the Master Fish Boiler at this place, a lumberjack-looking man named Matthew Peterson, has been helming the kettle for 30 years, first under the tutelage of Mr. Pelletier himself and now as its owner for the past twelve.
“Oh, I never get sick of eating this fish,” he explained. “Some nights I have it as tacos, other times as part of a Cioppini fish stew – there are always plenty of leftovers.”
The Fish boil, Matthew explained, is a tradition originating in Door County itself and does not exist anywhere else in the world. Rumored as a way to have fed lumberjacks or any other large gatherings of people, this popular tradition now feeds flocks of curious tourists during the summer season–Pelletier’s alone does 1200.
Into the Brew went the Whitefish
Matthew walked me through the process. First into a giant caldron go red potatoes, ends sliced off to better allow the salt to penetrate. Ten minutes later in go the yellow sweet onions, also called Texas sweets, bred to taste like Vidalia’s, but in miniaturized form. Finally, large chunks of Lake Michigan whitefish descend into the brew, followed by the grand finale ten minutes later with the famed “boil over.” A common misperception is that kerosene is added to the water itself. Not true – the kerosene is doused on the fire, resulting in the shooting flames that cause the water to boil over.
Does a Fish Boil actually Boil?
One question in my mind was whether the fish actually boils, rather than simmer or poach before its fiery finish. From my eyewitness account, the mixture mainly simmered and only started to roll into a rapid boil five minutes or so before the boil over. I noted the grayish murk floating on the surface, the same stuff you see when you make a stock of any kind before skimming it. Oh, I get it, I thought. The boil over effectively “skims” the fish stock by boiling it over with a last-minute and short-lived burst of flames, leaving in it’s a wake a clean tasting fish. Voila!
Another essential ingredient to the boil is salt – and lots of it. The salt not only flavors the fish boil ingredients but also increases the boiling temperature of the water, to encourage more oil to the top. Nothing actually tastes salty, just perfectly seasoned.
As for the verdict – the fish boil was delicious. The fish has a meaty texture, with the pillowy folds of a lobster tail, yet as tender and flakey as any perfectly cooked fish. There was absolutely no trace of toughness.
The Midwestern Version of a Lobster Boil
Kind of a Mid-west version of the boiled Lobster dinners of New England, the act of eating the fish itself involves a bit of ceremony. You’ll need to know how to get the fish off the bones without ending up with a mouthful of pin bones–there is a method. Ask your server to show you or come prepared.
The Fish Boil is one Heck of a Deal
To top it off, the fish boil is one heck of a deal. At Pelletier’s, you get 2 large chunks of fish, red potatoes, sweet onions, coleslaw, rye bread and butter, cherry pie and the non-alcoholic beverage of your choice for $18. Add $1.50 extra if you want ice cream on the pie and trust me, you do. If you are further towards the tip of the peninsula, I noticed a similar menu and Master Boiler lineage (both boilers have the same last name and what appears to be a similar facial appearance) at the Viking Grill for just $15.95.
Fish Boil Recipe
If you’d like to try your luck at home, try the fish boil recipe on the Viking Grill site.