In The Upper Midwest, Summertime Means Fish Boils : The Salt Scandinavian immigrants developed an ingenious way to feed large groups of people on the cheap: fish boils. More than 100 years later, the tradition — and the spectacle — lives on.
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In The Upper Midwest, Summertime Means Fish Boils

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In The Upper Midwest, Summertime Means Fish Boils

In The Upper Midwest, Summertime Means Fish Boils

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

You know, some say a really good meal is as much about the experience as the food. Well, how about we visit one of those meals? It's a tradition Scandinavian immigrants brought when they began settling the Midwest. And coastal communities all around the Great Lakes still carry it on today. Bring your appetite as we join Amanda Vinicky from member station WUIS.

AMANDA VINICKY, BYLINE: You've likely heard of the fish fry - the Friday night fundraisers featuring any variety of battered and breaded seafood. This is not that. Welcome to the White Gull Inn, a quaint a hotel north of Green Bay that hosts fish boils. Although it's 90 degrees and sunny, a guy's out back building a bonfire.

He shoves crumbled newspapers between birch logs under a metal stand, the seat for a huge stainless steel cauldron high as my waist. Then he hauls over a hose and fills the pot with some 20 gallons of water. Soon enough, chunks of whitefish will be tossed in and boiled. Marc Weborg's family immigrated here in the 1800s.

MARC WEBORG: I'm the fourth generation. My son-in-law is the fifth generation here at commercial fishing in Door County.

VINICKY: At his fishery in Gills Rock, Weborg has a boat that looks like the maritime version of a flatbed truck. His complexion is ruddy from a lifetime spent on the water, his right arm cut off above the elbow from a fishing accident. He talks about fishing with a mixture of affinity and frustration - the expenses, the difficulty catching whitefish that were once abundant here, but no longer. Weborg says his family has been doing fish boils for generations.

WEBORG: My great-great-great-grandfather brought it over here from Norway. And we used to have it around the sheds just for the crew.

VINICKY: While local lore is fuzzy on the 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 foods movement. In time, it became a sort of community ceremony, a twist on the backyard barbecue. Back at the fire pit behind the inn's main building, the water's bubbling, and it's time for the boil master to take over. A crowd gathers to watch as he drops in red potatoes, then hunks of raw fish 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 come in. The boil master grabs an old charred coffee tin filled with kerosene, which he tosses onto the fire, sending flames six, eight feet into the air like dragon's breath rising from the pot. Water cascades down its sides. Andy Coulson says it isn't just for show.

ANDY COULSON: That big flare-up makes all the water in the top half of the pot boil over the sides, and it is kind of like you were just able to rinse all your food.

VINICKY: It's just four ingredients - water, potatoes, fish and salt. No other spices. Marc Weborg says it doesn't need anything else to be special.

WEBORG: There's just no other way to have fish and a potato that tastes so good.

VINICKY: Simple ingredients and a spectacle that has changed little for generations. For NPR News, I'm Amanda Vinicky.

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