If you'd like to know more about the history of the Door County Fish Boil, watch the excellent video made for Door County Today's TV program, as related by White Gull Innkeeper Andy Coulson, Master Boiler Tom Christianson and our friend Dan Peterson, owner and Master Boiler of the Viking Grill in Ellison Bay.
"What is a Door County fish boil, and why would I want to try one?"
If you are a first time visitor to the Door Peninsula, it isn't surprising that you are wondering. The Door County fish boil is a dining experience only found in Door County, and one that everyone should experience at least once. Most people who have tried one make a fish boil dinner a regular part of each visit to the peninsula.
A traditional Door County fish boil, like the one served at the White Gull Inn, features freshly caught Lake Michigan whitefish caught by local fishermen and cooked outside over an open fire, just as it was one hundred years ago by the Scandinavian settlers of the Peninsula. The fish is cut in chunks and cooked in boiling water with small red potatoes. (Some Door County fish boils add onions, but we at the White Gull feel that onions can overpower the flavor of freshly caught fish.) Salt is the only spice used. Fish oils rise to the surface of the boiling cauldron, and when the fish is perfectly done, the Master Boiler tosses a small amount of kerosene on the flames under the pot.
The great burst of flames causes the boilover, spilling the fish oils over the side of the pot and leaving the fish perfectly done, steaming hot and ready to serve. (Photographs and postcards of this spectacular conclusion to the cooking process have been taken and sent all over the world, which is why fish boils are so closely identified with the Door Peninsula.)
Inside the White Gull dining room, the fish and potatoes are served with lemon, melted butter, garden fresh coleslaw, homemade breads and homemade Door County cherry pie for dessert. Imported and domestic beers, wines and a variety of soft drinks are available to enjoy with the meal and while you are watching it being prepared on the patio. When you attend a White Gull fish boil, make sure you arrive early, as part of the whole experience is watching the cooking process and hearing the history first hand from our master boiler.
Several restaurants in Door County serve a fish boil, but the White Gull Inn's is one of the oldest, started in 1959, and certainly the most famous, having been featured in dozens of newspapers and magazines and on many television stations. The White Gull fish boil is served Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights in summer, and on Friday nights in winter. Reservations are requested and, during the busy summer months, are almost always necessary.
If you would like a description of the White Gull fish boil in greater detail, read on...
It is dusk in Fish Creek, and a gusty wind whips a few leaves about the patio. The dinner guests at the White Gull Inn don't seem to mind the falling temperatures. They are all outside, standing around a huge black pot, filled with boiling water and suspended over a blazing wood fire. Clutching mugs of beer and cider, they draw close to the flames, keeping warm and straining to hear the man who appears to be skimming the pot and giving a short course in cooking.
Some of the guests are locals entertaining out of town visitors. The rest are tourists, experiencing something everyone has heard about from the moment they set foot on the Door Peninsula - a traditional outdoor fish boil. The master boiler explains the history of the fish boil and the unusual cooking procedure, then patiently answers questions.
"How did the fish boil get started?" asks one guest. Tom Christianson, the boiler, begins the answer as though he has never heard the question before. "Well, people have been boiling fish for thousands of years. I don't know who did if first in Door County. Maybe the commercial fishermen who had access to lots of fish, and wanted a quick and easy meal. Churches picked up the tradition to raise money, and people from all over would come to taste the local fish, potatoes and Door County cherry pie. Eventually the restaurants got into the act."
Tom now adds the salt, something which never fails to catch the crowd's attention because of the amount used in the fish boil recipe - one pound for every two gallons of water. "Is that salt?" someone gasps. "Just a pinch," answers Tom. Then with a smile forming on his face, red from the heat, he explains, "the salt does not make the fish and potatoes salty. It raises the specific gravity of the water, and makes everything float. The fish oils that we don't want to eat foam to the surface. When the fish and potatoes are cooked, I throw on the kerosene."
At this point, someone invariably asks if the kerosene goes into the pot itself. Because boiled fish doesn't sound too appealing to begin with - until you've tried it - Tom stresses that the kerosene goes on the fire only. The big flareup, he explains, causes the overboil, when the water in the top half of the pot boils over the edge, taking the oils with it.
Tom now measures that "small amount of kerosene" into an old coffee can. You can tell those who've been here before because they move back, forming a wide ring around the fire and the boiler. For the newcomers, Tom warns them to give the fire plenty of room. "You don't want an immovable object right behind you if the wind shifts," he advises. With the crowd at a respectful distance and his assistant behind him, ready with a long pole, Tom tosses the kerosene on the flames. A wall of fire shoots skyward, water pours over the side of the pot, hissing as it hits the coals. A dozen camera flashes go off, as the assistant and Tom ease the pole through the nets of fish and potatoes and lift them gently out to set on a nearby tray.
Tom peers through the steam into the net as though checking to see if the fish is properly cooked. That it wouldn't be is hard to fathom, since Tom by now has cooked thousands of fish boil dinners. He raises his head and smiles incredulously at his assistant. "It looks good enough to eat!"
Inside the dining room, the dinner guests devour the fish and potatoes, doused in melted butter and served with the traditional accompaniments of coleslaw, rye bread and cherry pie. Waitresses bustle in and out of the kitchen with seconds and glasses of Wisconsin beer. As people enjoy their dinner, the noise level of the dining room gradually rises until a piece of cherry pie with a candle is set down in front of some lucky guest. The waitress leads eighty voices in a rousing "Happy Birthday."
Before the singing stops, Tom is already back outside, ringing the black kettle with fresh firewood and getting the water back to a boil. As he pours five pounds of salt into the pot, someone asks, "is that salt?" "I hope so," says Tom, with a grin.
Below: Master Boiler Tom Christianson as depicted by Missouri artist Kathy Nausley
When Tom has the night off, I boil the fish. We both learned a lot (about boiling fish and life in general) from the same man, Russ Ostrand, who for 30 years was the White Gull Inn's master fish boiler. Russ passed away in early 1997, but he is remembered fondly by generations of tourists and staff members as the dean of Door County fish boilers. Even if you never attended one of his fish boil dinners, you may have seen his picture in one of the many regional and national magazines and newspapers that featured him.
In 1972, when I became the owner and manager of the White Gull Inn, I was young, and green, and had no real idea of how to run a business, let alone a Door County fish boil. Someone said to call Russ, who had been the inn's fish boiler for the last few years. "Well," I remember him saying when I called and introduced myself. "I heard the White Gull had been sold, so I have been asked to boil fish for another restaurant." In the stunned silence that followed, he must have taken pity on me, for he finally said, "but I would like to stay at the White Gull."
Russ was a Door County native, who along with boiling fish, farmed and worked full time until his retirement at Peterson Shipyards in Sturgeon Bay. In the beginning, he had to teach me and my new staff everything, for we knew nothing. That first weekend we were open, Russ calmly boiled the fish and entertained the dinner guests with his accordion. Behind the scenes he patiently explained to us where to buy the fish, how to build the fire, how to count out the servings, where to stand, what to say, even how to clean up. I often have wondered what he thought as he drove home each night that first summer. But it was obvious that he took an interest in young people, and he wasn't about to let anything bad happen to the inn he took great pride in.
If that first summer of 1972 was a crash course for us in fish boiling, it was only kindergarten in the school of Russ Ostrand. My staff and I were young, and most of us had come to Door County on a lark or just to have fun while earning money for college. As we watched our fish boiling mentor, we realized that although he was enjoying himself too, there was a whole lot more going on. Sure, there were polkas, and singing, and clapping, and yes, even sometimes dancing at the fish boils. But something else was happening: Russ was taking this very seriously. Sure, he'd tell a few jokes and put the guests at ease. But he was scrupulous about how he cooked the fish. He carefully and kindly answered every question, no matter how many times he'd been asked it. It became obvious that he loved the fish boil, was proud of it, wanted to share it with others, and took great pains to make sure that everyone's visit to his fish boil, whether it was a first or a repeat, was a very special experience. It was his way of approaching what you do, every day, with your best effort, in order to make it special for other people, that Russ passed on to me, and Tom and to the others he worked with.
Russ was a modest person, but he was actually quite famous. Not too many of us can say that our picture has appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Better Homes and Gardens, Country Living. . . the list goes on and on, including a lot of television stations. We all lost track of the number long ago. But all this media attention never went to Russ' head. What was far more important to him were the thousands of people who planned their annual vacation around a visit to his fish boil. He looked forward to seeing them each year as much as they did seeing him.
Russ is gone now, but he lives on in our memories and his tradition is passed on at each fish boil by Tom, me and others who were lucky enough to learn from him.
(reprinted from the White Gull Inn Centennial Cookbook, copyright 1997 by Jan and Andy Coulson, all rights reserved)