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The traditional Wisconsin fish boil is an elaborate ritual—and a social occasion. (Photograph by Mike Roemer)

Local Flavor: Wisconsin’s Fiery Favorite

Like its cousin, the New England clambake, the fish boil of America’s upper Great Lakes grew out of a community coming together to celebrate local bounty.

The custom of poaching the day’s catch with potatoes was brought over by the region’s Scandinavian settlers and no doubt sustained many a hearty soul on these rocky, wind-whipped shores.

More than a century later, the tradition lives on during the summer and early fall on Door Peninsula, the bluff-lined land that juts into Lake Michigan from Wisconsin’s midsection.

At the Old Post Office restaurant in the village of Ephraim, master boiler Earl Jones has presided over the cast-iron cauldron for 14 summers, stoking the wood fire and perfectly timing each component—fresh whitefish steaks, red potatoes, sweet onions, and a fistful of salt—while regaling guests with Door lore and corny jokes.

Until local restaurants revived the tradition, “fish boils fed people in lumber camps, and churches used them as fundraisers,” says owner Larry Krause. “Today, visitors can be a part of the tradition.”

On Washington Island off the tip of the peninsula, fisherman Ken Koyen hosts weekly fish boils at his restaurant K. K. Fiske, which stands on the site of the dairy farm where he grew up.

The highlight of the evening is the “overboil,” when the master fuels the fire with kerosene and flames engulf the cauldron. Then comes the feast (pictured above) accompanied by crunchy slaw, house-made bread, and local cherry pie for dessert.

  • Fun fact: With 300 miles of shoreline and 11 lighthouses, Wisconsin’s Door County is often called the Cape Cod of the Midwest.

This piece, written by Margaret Loftus, appeared in the June/July 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.