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August 27, 2012 / Bo Mackison

Traditional Fish Boil – Sunday Series

Traditional Fish Boil - Begin with Potatoes

Begin with Potatoes ©2012 Bo Mackison

A visit to Door County is hardly complete until one experiences a Door County Fish Boil, a Scandinavian tradition. Now the Fish Boil is a tourist attraction, but in the 1800s it was the most expedient and cheapest way to feed the masses of fisherman and other workers in a sparsely populated area.

Traditional Fish Boil - Lake Michigan Whitefish

Lake Michigan Whitefish ©2012 Bo Mackison

It is cooking at its simplest. Outdoors over a log fire. A huge black kettle. Plenty of salt water. Basic ingredients – potatoes, onions, and Lake Michigan Whitefish. Tradition has given way to modern convenience in one way – the stainless steel inserts often come from recycled washing machines. The Whitefish is only hours from Lake Michigan. Three or four steaks are cut from each fish, and fileted by machine.

Traditional Fish Boil - Checking the Progress

Checking the Progress ©2012 Bo Mackison

Potatoes go in almost whole. The ends are cut to allow the salt water to flavor the whole potato. Next the fish boil master adds the onions. And then he adds the whitefish last.

Traditional Fish Boil - Adding a Little Salt

Adding a Little Salt ©2012 Bo Mackison

He adds a huge scoop of salt. This is salt water cooking!

Traditional Fish Boil - Hard to Wait!

Hard to Wait! ©2012 Bo Mackison

And then the wait is on. All the diners circle around the cooking area, all with cameras in hand. The littler kids squeeze up front for a good view. These little guys, brothers who wer 5 and 2, kept chanting. “Hurry up! Hurry up!” Ten minutes is a long time to wait when you’re a little kid (or an adult for that matter) and you’re waiting not only for dinner, but for the fish boil master to yell “boil over!”

Traditional Fish Boil - Regulating the Boil

Regulating the Boil ©2012 Bo Mackison

The fish boil master regulates the fire and the cooking temperatures by kicking away logs. Logs standing on end keep the fire burning intensely. Logs kicked to the side allows heat to escape and reduces the heat.

Traditional Fish Boil - Adding Kerosene to Fire

Adding Kerosene to Fire ©2012 Bo Mackison

When the fish and accompaniments are fully cooked, kerosene is added to the flames. This cause a flash of fire, the water boils over the pot, and the excess oils from the fish wash over the pot.

Traditional Fish Boil - Boil Over

Boil Over ©2012 Bo Mackison

The fish pot is then lifted by two men with long poles, and delivered to the kitchen where dinner is quickly put on plates and served. The clean plate award is a slice of cherry pie. That’s another Door County tradition, courtesy of the many orchards on Door County. Its geographic position, a peninsula stretching into the waters of Lake Michigan, keeps the county more temperate than the rest of Wisconsin, so apple and cherry orchards are plentiful.


Bo Mackison is a photographer and the owner of Seeded Earth Studio LLC. She took this series of photos while on a weekend trip to Door County this summer. Bo has been to many a fish boil, beginning with her first one when she was ten years old. She remembers taking a single photograph of a fish boil with her Brownie camera, and wishes she still had a few photos from her earliest attempts.

Visit Bo’s website and daily photoblog for more photos and current information.

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