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August 15, 2008 / Bo Mackison

Fish Boil – A Wisconsin Tradition

Fish Boil at Boil-Over

Fish Boil at "Boil-Over"

I have a suspicion that if you mention “fish boil” anywhere in the United States, except Wisconsin, you will see some odd expressions, but the traditional Door County Fish Boil is wildly popular in this northern Wisconsin vacation destination. The main ingredient – thick steaks of delicate, freshly caught whitefish from the surrounding waters of Lake Michigan – make dinner an occasion for many a visitor. This is especially true when the fish is prepared in a huge black kettle amidst a fiery blaze. When a member of the Boil Over Crew sounds the dinner bell, it is the signal for the “boil over” and that is the signal that it will soon be time to eat.

For the uninitiated, a fish boil begins with a kettle of hot salted water perched atop a wood fire. The boil master drops one steel basket of potatoes and onions into the boiling water, and a second basket of fresh whitefish goes into the steaming cauldron a few minutes later. When everything is nearly ready, kerosene is added to the fire and a huge flame erupts, causing the water to boil over the top. Hence, a “boil over.” The hot flames cause the water to boil over the sides of the kettle, removing fish oil that has collected on the surface during the cooking process.

As you can see in the photo, the crew then lifts the baskets from the heat, lets the water drain, and the ingredients are presented to the hungry crowd with a generous drizzle of butter and hearty slices of bread. And to make the event an even grander foodie experience, the meal is finished off with a slice of Door County cherry pie.



  1. montucky / Aug 15 2008 9:23 pm

    What a great tradition! I just ate dinner and it made me hungry. When I was stationed in North Carolina our base was near a small town and the fire department there annually cooked up a chowder dinner that was always a memorable occasion: at least, I enjoyed it.

  2. Anna Surface / Aug 16 2008 8:45 am

    Yesterday, I enjoyed reading this at A wonderful write-up of a tradition I haven’t heard of before, Bo. We have a kettle tradition here which is Mulligan stew. Great photo capture of the pot, flames, and smoke. Do you think these type of kettle traditions were handed down by the Native Americans? 🙂

  3. Bo / Aug 16 2008 9:24 am

    Anna, The area was settled by Scandinavians and Icelanders – fishermen/sailors by trade. And the fish boil was simply an economical and easy way to feed boatloads of hungry men at the end of their workday. Doubt they got cherry pie though! 🙂

  4. Gandalf / Aug 20 2008 9:28 am

    Sounds yummy, particularly the Cherry pie desert.

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