By Heidi Hodges and Kathy Steebs
Sometimes that recognized and memorable “thing” is
a unique food. Or an interesting landmark or an industry.
Think lobster rolls in Maine, the Gateway Arch in St. Louis or Florida oranges.
Door County is no exception. In fact, we’ve got so many it’s hard to pin one identifying thing down. There is the historic Belgian community and National Landmark in Southern Door, for instance. Or our robust arts scene, rustic agricultural landscapes and breathtaking shoreline.
But perhaps the three things most folks identify most with Door County are lighthouses, cherry orchards and fish boils.
Let’s start with the fish boils.
For the uninitiated, it does, admittedly, sound a bit unappetizing. But those who have dipped forkfuls of tender whitefish into hot, drawn butter know better. As the late Chan Harris, editor and owner of the Door County Advocate, would often declare, “Fish boils are the food of the gods.”
The roots of fish boils can probably be traced to local fishermen and lumberjacks who likely had the classic meal at the end of a long day, as an easy way to feed a crowd with plentiful ingredients.
However the tradition started, today, it seems synonomous with Door County.
Tender, mild, freshly-caught local whitefish is the star of the show. And it is a show: fish boils are held outdoors, with diners gathered around the boiling cauldron perched atop a hot wood fire.
First in the pot are small, fresh, new potatoes. Then, small, sweet onions join in the boiling, salted water (although, a couple local fish boils skip this ingredient.)
Timing is crucial. Every step is measured down to the minute.
Last in is the whitefish. And then comes the show.
Folks are urged to “get their cameras ready” as the boil master tosses a can of kerosene on the woodfire, causing a billowing ball of flame to soar into the air.
This intense heat causes the water to boil over, quashing the fire. The big pots of steaming food are immediately removed with long metal poles and carried inside.
The boil-over serves the purpose of tossing out fish oils and any impurities that might have gotten into the pot. It also helps keep all ingredients from tasting “fishy.”
And it’s also pretty awesome to watch.
On summer weekends, it’s possible to see the boil-over smoke plumes rising from the horizon across the county.
Diners follow the food into the restaurant where the fish, potatoes and onions are traditionally served with bread, butter and cherry pie. Coleslaw and lemon are often on the menu, as well.
Speaking of cherry pie...
Besides commercial fishing, from whence the whitefish are derived, Door County’s other historic and well-known industry is cherries.
In springtime, the county is aglow with the white blossoms of cherry trees. And then in mid to late July, the trees are heavy with fruit. “Pick your own” orchards dot the county, or you can get yours pre-picked.
Don’t expect the sweet sweet variety—these are Montmorency cherries, slightly tart and intensely flavorful—the ones most cherry pies are made from.
The cherry industry began in Door County in the late 1860s when a UW-Madison professor of horticulture and a commercial fruit grower from southern Wisconsin joined forces to bring the Montmorency to Door County.
The peninsula was, and is, uniquely suited for growing fruit since it is surrounded by water, keeping spring weather cool, but not too cold, allowing blossoms to slowly mature without succumbing to a killing frost.
The industry took off and continues to this day, almost 150 years later. That’s probably because the popular Montmorency stands up well in baked goods like pies and cobblers, and its tartness makes it a sought-after complement to earthy meat and game dishes.
Cherries are also currently being processed in different ways. Dried cherries are a unique and healthy snack; cherry juice is delicious and has been shown to have health benefits.
And they are often used in savory dishes, such as a glaze for duck breast, or in a cherry bratwurst.
But of course, they are most famous for the countless sweet creations they are used in, including the famous cherry-stuffed French toast at the White Gull Inn, voted the Best Breakfast in America by the Good Morning America television show in 2010.
The good news is, you can expect to find Door County’s famous cherries in restaurants and markets throughout the county.
Finding your way
With so much shoreline—about 300 miles, by some estimates—Door County is a gorgeous location to sightsee.
But if you happen to be in a boat, Door County can also be a treacherous hazard to marine navigation. There are hundreds of shipwrecks resting below the cold, blue waters of Lake Michigan and Green Bay, surrounding the peninsula.
In fact, the peninsula’s dangerous reputation is how the county derived its name.
Early French fur traders heard tales of a tragic incident with local Native Americans. Legend has it that a large group in canoes were dashed against the rocks near the tip of the mainland in a sudden and violent squall. The French named the waters between the mainland and the islands north, Portes de Mortes—Death’s Door.
So, today, we are Door County.
Travel by water was the first way around the wilds of the peninsula—first in canoes, then in larger sail vessels like schooners.
The commercial shipping, fishing and recreational vessels that have long plied the waters have relied on the many lighthouses and range lights that dot the peninsula’s shores to guide them and keep them from harm’s way.
From Rock Island at the northernmost tip of the county to Sherwood Point south of Sturgeon Bay, lighthouse buffs have a lot to celebrate in Door County.
While several of Door County’s lighthouses are open and available for tours, others are not. The best time to get acquainted with the historic structures is during the annual Lighthouse Walk, held the second weekend in June, when many otherwise-inaccessible lighthouses are open to the public, and boat tours are available to view those that are hard-to-reach.
For more information, including a downloadable brochure describing access, restrictions and history, visit www.doorcounty.com/experience/lighthouses/.