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In The Upper Midwest, Summertime Means Fish Boils

Boiled whitefish fresh from Green Bay, and red new potatoes.
Amanda Vinicky/WUIS
Boiled whitefish fresh from Green Bay, and red new potatoes.

Long ago, when settling the Great Lakes, Scandinavian immigrants brought with them an ingenious method of feeding lots of people, on the cheap.

A century later, coastal communities dotting the Midwest carry on what has become a tradition that is part meal, part spectacle. It's called the "fish boil."

Mark Weborg, whose family immigrated to the area in the 1800s, says his family has been doing fish boils for generations.

"I'm the fourth generation, my son-in-law is the fifth generation, here, at commercial fishing in Door County," Weborg says. "My great-great-great-grandfather brought [the fish boil] over here from Norway. And we used to have it around the sheds just for the crew."

While local lore is fuzzy on origins, it's widely recognized that fishermen and lumberjacks turned to the fish boil to eat on the job — an early, and easy, version of the local food movement. In time, it became a sort of community ceremony — a twist on the backyard barbecue.

At the White Gull Inn, a quaint hotel north of Green Bay, Weborg demonstrates how it's done. He builds a bonfire, shoving crumpled newspapers between birch logs, under a metal stand — the seat for a huge, stainless steel, waist-high cauldron. He hauls over a hose and fills the pot with 20 gallons of water.

Weborg's complexion is ruddy from a lifetime spent on the water. He lost half of his right arm in a fishing accident. He talks about fishing with a mixture of affinity and frustration — frustration at the expenses and the difficulty catching whitefish that are no longer abundant in the area.

Once the water in the cauldron is bubbling, the boil master takes over. A crowd gathers to watch as he drops in red potatoes, then hunks of raw whitefish still on the bone and covered in a slippery silver skin, each accompanied with heaping cups of salt.

Here's where expertise and some pyrotechnics comes in — the boil master grabs an old, charred coffee tin filled with kerosene, which he tosses onto the fire, sending flames six or eight feet into the air. Water cascades down the sides of the cauldron.

"That big flare-up makes all of the water in the top half of the pot boil over the sides, and it's kind of like you were able to rinse all of your food," says Andy Coulson, proprietor of the White Gull Inn.

The concoction consists of just four ingredients: water, potatoes, fish and salt. Weborg says it doesn't need anything else to be special.

"There's just no other way to have fish and a potato that tastes so good ... just tastes so good," he says.

It's a tradition — with some fanfare — that has changed little for generations.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Amanda Vinicky