I sat with my parents and grandma around a fire pit outside the Old Post Office in Ephraim, WI as Earl, the boil master, prepared our food for us. He stoked the fire, removed and added logs around the pit to control the temperature, and shared a short history of fish boils interspersed with corny fisherman jokes like, “What did the fish say when it hit the concrete wall? … DAM!” and, “Why did the vegan go deep-sea fishing? … Just for the halibut!” (I’m chuckling even as I write these).
I suppose that’s really what Door County fish boils are about – theatrics over food. Although, don’t get me wrong, the food is pretty fabulous too! The meal typically consists of locally caught whitefish boiled with potatoes, onions, and enough salt to give you a heart attack just looking at it. Top that off with homemade cole slaw, sweetbread, and cherry pie and you’ve got yourself a full on fish boil experience. But the real excitement came when the boil master threw kerosene on the fire, causing the oils from the fish to boil over and engulf the pot in one giant, fabulous flame.
For all the entertainment big flames bring, I can appreciate the historical aspect of fish boils as well. Back in the day, they were just a cheap way to feed large groups of fisherman and lumberjacks working and living in the area. Only in the mid-1950s did they become commercialized as a means of drawing in tourists. While they retain their purpose of feeding large groups of people as cheaply as possible, it also gives you some insight into the traditional way of life of a Northwoodsman.
Above all, I love that I got to experience Door County with my 70-year-old grandma. Experiencing a traditional fish boil was a first for the both of us but she had quite a few other firsts all her own as well – her first s’more, first camping trip, and first taste of a fried Wisconsin cheese curd. My grandma often remarks how much she admires my bravery and adventurous spirit because she could never do the things I do. Yet she showed so much courage and bravery this past weekend. While camping or trying a new food for the first time may seem like small potatoes to some, it really is a big deal for her. I am beyond proud. I hope when I’m 70 years old that I’ll still be willing to step outside my comfort zone and say, “Sure, why not.”