In Door County, on the Wisconsin side of Lake Michigan, there’s a town of about 800 people called Ellison Bay. Like many of the small hamlets in the County it lives for the summer tour season and the hordes that come from Chicago and Milwaukee to escape the heat and stay next to the lake. Of course all those tourists need to eat while they’re away from home and about 70-years ago the Viking Grill came up with a plan, the Wisconsin Whitefish Boil. Now the fish boil wasn’t a new idea, it’s been around since caveman days, but in the early 1940’s Lake Michigan was seeing a major decline in trout, the fish of preference for boils, so the Viking Grill turned to the second most plentiful fish in the lake, Whitefish. About 30-years ago a young man named Dan Peterson was working at the Swedish restaurant in town, where he had been for 25-years. It was a good job and the restaurant had a built in attraction, goats that grazed on the sod roof. It was a tourist stop for every bus and car that rolled through town and Dan learned a lesson about giving people a full experience with their meal. That came in handy later when Dan set out to make a name for himself and purchased the Viking Grill.
Watching fish boil may not sound like an exciting way to spend an evening, and it probably wasn’t until Dan showed up. He tells a wonderful story and he has a certain flair for the dramatic and people come from miles just to see it. He starts by building a nice fire under a large kettle. He then sets a timer and watches for the exact moment to place the cauldron containing dinner in the boiling pot. The cauldron is layered with new red potatoes on the bottom, sweet Spanish onions above that and then the whitefish. They are joined by about a pound of salt. Slowly the water works itself to a frenzy and oil begins to gather at the top of the water. This is Dan’s shining moment. What he’s been working up to for an hour. He orders the assembled group to back up and when one tourist asks how far he points to a black spot on the ground and says “That’s a tourist that was too close in the last group.” We all back up past the black spot. Dan then walks to the fire and throws fuel on top of it. There’s a huge fire ball that consumes the entire kettle, cauldron and boil. It burns for about 30-seconds taking the fish oil right off the top of the water and goes out as quickly as it started. Dan grins from ear-to-ear. We all move inside to eat and Dan cleans pots in the kitchen. Afterwards, as we prepare to leave, I chat with Dan a bit and tell him how delicious his meal was. He smiles and says “yeah, and how about that boilover? Did you see the kids eyes?” Another lesson for me on this trip. The actual preparation should be just as much fun as the meal itself. Dan Peterson appreciates that people like his food, but he lives for the 30-seconds of roaring flame, just like he enjoyed the goats on the roof. It’s all part of the show. I’m not sure Diane’s going to let me put animals on the roof, or create a nightly fireball, so maybe a nice conversation while cooking dinner, or a friendly chat during breakfast will work. It won’t have the flair, but it will have the impact. Thanks Dan.