Travel, History & Culture in America's Dairyland



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Fish Frys

Pick Your Bones Clean
Door County fish boils 

For the benefit of Illinoitians who might visiting classicwisconsin (making plans on where to leave lousy tips for our waitresses this summer), a fish boil is not "localized swelling and inflammation of the skin resulting from infection in a skin gland, having a hard central core, and forming pus," as boils are described in the Webster's Ninth New College Dictionary. No, we're talkin' about boiled whitefish. Understand? Fresh fish that is boiled...the water is brought to a boil and the fish is…forget it, classicwisconsin can't help you anymore.

It's not the tradition involved in Door County fish boils that classicwisconsin loves. In fact, the Viking Grill in Ellison Bay claims to have started commercial fish boils in 1961, so the recipe wasn't exactly etched on Moses' tablets. Sure, the concept of boiling fish for sustenance has been around a while, but that was long before the cha-ching of Destination Marketing. Leave it to classicwisconsin to tell you that Door County's fish boils are not nearly traditional as they are marketable.

This is what classicwisconsin loves about a fish boil: It's no damn fun. None at all. Whitefish and trout from the Big Pond are full of bones. You gotta work. Work at your dinner or choke. Thing is, Wisconsin folks work hard and play hard, so working while playing -- picking all those bones away to eat the whitefish and butter and new potatoes and sweet onions (go heavy on the onions) and throw back a couple or three big ol' pints of beer -- is no problem at all. We love it. Tourists, however, well, they just don't know what to make of the mess. Most poke at their tators and head for the nearest boutique where they'll get screwed out of $79 for a miniature lighthouse made in Taiwan.

"Ach, the fish had so many bones in it and all that butter, well I never…."

"Would you like batteries for your lighthouse?" Cha-ching.

Let's start at the top, Ellison Bay, because far too many people go only as far as Fish Creek and think they've experienced the Door Peninsula. As mentioned earlier, the Viking Grill claims the first commercial fish boil. You can't miss the place. It's right along Hwy 42 and what's really cool is the old general store located next door, a real deal, vintage mercantile with warped wood floors and a permanent aroma that seems to be a mixture of dried meat and whale oil. It's packed to rafters with every necessity imaginable as a reminder that there is community of people who live here year-round, long after the tourists return to Highland Park. Don't just look at it. Go inside. Then mosey over to the Viking and go heavy on the onions.

(By the way, for you Minnesota Viking fans who think this a safe haven, it's called the Viking because the Scandinavian heritage of Door County was established long before your team began folding its tent like Girl Scouts at a jamboree.)

Just north of Ellison Bay is Gills Rock. Can't go any father unless you're taking a ferry to Washington or Rock island. At land's end you'll find the final joint on the peninsula: Charlie's Smoke House. No fish fry, just the best damned smoked fish in the county. Buy some. The smoky fish stink will fill your car and linger for days, infesting your clothes as well, and classicwisconsin is dead serious when it says there is nothing better than that, not even new car smell.

South to Sister Bay, you'll find the Sister Bay Bowl on the hill. Highway 42 again. classicwisconsin is tempted to go on and on, suffice to say that any ten-lane bowling alley serving bucket-sized brandy Old Fashioneds and slinging fried fish by good old fashioned fried fish slinging waitresses gets bumped to the head of the class.

South to Fish Creek through Ephraim: Pelletier's, Fish Creek, seems to have cornered the market on fish boils in this tourist town. The crowds are seated very efficiently every 45 minutes. It's the White Gull Inn that has seamlessly merged fish boils and fine dining within the historic confines of an 1896 inn.

Get the hell out of Fish Creek.

South to Egg Harbor, Casey's Inn does not have a fish boil, but it's the supper club patronized by locals, it has that going for it. Casey's advertises its location at the "fashionable north end" of the tiny village, so they score points for having a sense of humor. Another place, Shipwrecked, is fine old building at Egg Harbor's bend in the road, but the service is spotty and the name is kind of goofy for a restaurant.

Sturgeon Bay is considered the gateway to the Door, but it's the final stop in our north-to-south search for The Fish Fry. Sturgeon Bay is an interesting nut to crack. The local economy -- shipbuilding -- had it ups and downs through the decades. For years tourists never bothered to stop in industrial Sturgeon Bay as they made their way up the Door, but that would be a mistake today. The town is lookin' pretty spiffy. One place that never went away, because locals love it, is Andre's, located on the hill on the south side of the canal where most tourists don't bother to tread. Find it. Eat fish.

More fish...



One fish:
What did you expect from a couple of deep fryers and a bag of frozen cod? At least they tried.

Two fish:
For a Friday night it's better than eating fish sticks on your couch.

Three fish:
Typical Wisconsin fish fry at a supper club or tavern. Involves a crowded bar and a Packers schedule on the wall (extra credit if the game scores are filled-in).

Four fish:
Member, classicwisconsin Shanty of Fame. An irresistible combination of atmosphere and fish.



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