Monday, June 17, 2013

Vacation With a Cherry on Top

"Boil Over!" These are the last words I hear before a container of kerosene hurtles toward a bonfire, sending the flames a good five feet above my head. The cast-iron cauldron of boiling water bubbles to the brim, and two men quickly grab the wire baskets of boiled fish and potatoes and set them down. "Enjoy your fish boil!" one of them says, as people slowly make their way to their tables. I just witnessed my first fish boil.

Door County, Wisconsin, is known for its fish boils, a Great Lakes culinary tradition that has been going on for decades. While the meal itself is pretty basic, it is the cooking presentation that truly makes a fish boil special. It is tough to pinpoint exactly how fish boils first began, but many in the area claim Scandinavian fishermen started the custom. Regardless of its roots, the one-pot meal has grown into a local specialty everyone enjoys, and an attraction thousands come to see.

My boyfriend and I drove up to Door County on a Friday afternoon from Chicago, which is about a four and a half hour drive, without traffic or construction delays. We made it in roughly five--we had to make a pit stop in Milwaukee to see our Alma Mater and enjoy a quick bite at the Public Market. Even though it wasn't the longest drive I've ever done, it can still get tedious, so I recommend some quality music mixes or podcasts to listen to along the way--since most of the scenery is just hills of grass and crops.

However, after passing Green Bay, the terrain starts to morph into lush greenery, making for a much more interesting view. We made our way slowly through Sturgeon Bay, one of the larger cities in the region, and continued north through a variety of local vineyards, which I would have liked to try, but Steve insisted we needed to keep going so we could get to the hotel. We drove through Egg Harbor, a village of about 200 people, filled with adorable shops and quaint eateries. Six more miles north and we finally reached our destination: Fish Creek, a place small enough that it registers as unincorporated on highway signs. And as we navigated through the streets, I felt as if I had been transported to a completely different time. All the buildings were reminiscent of an early century fishing town, complete with a general store and boat docks. Many of the homes, hotels and condos were more modern, but, for the most part, things felt a little behind the times. And yet, that is totally normal in Fish Creek. Things slow down, take on a completely different vibe, and leave you feeling more at ease.

Our hotel, the Hilltop Inn, was located near the edge of town. It's a group of condos that operate as a hotel when the owners aren't there, so we had a very nice unit with two floors, a full kitchen and living room, and two bedrooms--even though we only needed one. After quickly dropping off our luggage, we changed our clothes and headed out to explore the town. It surprisingly warm out, which we both didn't expect, but certainly welcomed. The main street was lined with tiny stores, boutiques, and eateries; and as we meandered down the road, we made a few stops along the water to gaze out at the bay. After a little back and forth with dinner, we decided to indulge in a traditional fish boil, and headed toward Pelletier's, a local restaurant. There were dozens of people gathered behind the restaurant, sitting in tables or standing around a pot being loaded with water, fish, salt and potatoes.

We hurried inside to grab a table, figuring it must be packed, but to our delight, there were plenty of open seats. As fish boil newbie's we were a little uncertain about what to do, so we headed to the front where we saw the menu written on a chalkboard. A full fish boil included two fillets, potatoes, coleslaw, bread, and a piece of cherry pie, all for less than $18. What a deal! So Steve ordered a full, and I got the light--only one fillet--and we shared a bottle of local cherry chardonnay. The lady told us the boil would happen in about 15 minutes, so we needed to hurry and get a good viewing spot outside. She also informed us that we had just made it, as this was the last boil of the night--it was only 7:30. I realized then why it wasn't that busy, the rush must have hit about two hours ago. And it made sense the more I looked around, a lot of older folks and families dominated the restaurant, meaning prime eating times were probably a little earlier than what we were accustomed to in Chicago where 8 pm is one of the craziest times at restaurants.

We grabbed a table by the window, poured ourselves a glass of wine, and headed outside. The boil was not exactly what I expected, although I really didn't know what to expect. I imagined it would consist of boiling fish in a big pot--which it does--but what happened beyond that was unknown to me. So when the fire was doused with kerosene and pot went up in flames, I was definitely shocked--but in a good way. It was exhilarating and fun, and definitely something I never thought I would experience.

Eating the meal was also new to me, or at least getting the fish into a consumable state. Basically, the fillets come out complete with skin and bones, and it was our job to remove it all. Needless to say I struggled a bit, mostly with the skin, since it refused to peel off the fish. Steve had to help me a little with it, but eventually it was clean of scales and I went to work on the bones. I kept my face uncomfortably close to the fish, meticulous in my method of catching every tiny, white bone--I felt like a surgeon. Once I felt it was sufficiently deboned, I doused it with lemon and took my first bite. The whitefish was perfectly cooked, so tender that it easily melted in my mouth. The potatoes and coleslaw were simple and very tasty, as was the basic wheat and white bread slices that came with the meal. I could see why this was called a poor man's feast, nothing fancy, and yet well prepared and filling. The whole meal was topped off with a lovely piece of cherry pie--which is probably my favorite kind of pie--and we devoured our dessert without reserve. We sat and chatted for a bit as we finished our wine, and then around 9 pm, we noticed we were some of the only people left in the place. It had completely cleared out, with the exception of us and one other table and few people hanging out at the bar. That was our cue, so we walked back to the hotel, and relaxed for a bit before calling it a night.

The next morning, we headed over to a local cycle shop to rent bikes so we could ride around the state park. Peninsula State Park is 3,776-acres with 17 miles of biking and hiking trails that wind through the peaceful forests and along sandy beaches. After we got our bikes ($6 per person per hour, helmet and lock included), we headed into the park to explore the various sites. Speeding along the mostly dirt trails, we enjoyed the serene scenery, stopping at a small 18th century lighthouse and an outdoor theater. In total, we biked a little over nine miles, which was enough for me, since it was a little chilly out.

We returned our bikes and walked into town to grab brunch. It was around 11 am at this point, prime brunch time--at least in Chicago--so I feared we would face big crowds and long lines. But once again I was proved wrong. There was no wait and plenty of tables at The Summertime Restaurant. We had a nice meal, quick and simple, complete with omelettes, potatoes, toast and jam. Afterwards, we wandered around the town in search of gifts and souvenirs, and we quickly discovered the go-to trinket of Door County: lawn ornaments. Every variation of this somewhat tacky item could be found at these stores, from garden gnomes and lawn signs, to intricate wood sculptures and humorous quotes. Each boutique had their own random selection of items, although there were some constants that we saw at each place. Even though I've always considered lawn ornaments a little gaudy, I have to admit that some of them made me wish I had a lawn to adorn with these crazy knickknacks. 

Steve and I scoured through the items at each store, finding some entertaining gifts for our friends and family, as well as some items for ourselves. One shop in particular that I liked was the Stone Cutter, located in a tiny colonial cabin refurbished as a jewelry and gem store. The owner cuts and polishes all the stones right in the shop, creating some beautiful necklaces, earrings and bracelets. I saw some stones from Italy, and immediately selected a necklace with lovely tear drop setting. 

After walking around a bit more, we came across a wonderful artisan food and wine shop, featuring all locally made products. Along the left wall were samples of various olive oils and balsamic vinaigrettes, which we happily tasted at our leisure. In the middle of the room, there was free wine tasting of varieties from the region--and again, we gladly indulged in a few sips. Cherries are big in Door County--probably bigger than fish boils--so the sweet fruit is often used in many of the regional foods and spirits. (The Cherry Chardonnay was good, but probably a little too sweet for me). On the right side, we found samples of different dips and spreads, including a cherry wine cheese that I snapped up immediately. I bought a couple bottles of wine, some vinaigrettes and olive oils, and the cheese spread, excited to bring back a piece of Door County to enjoy at a later date.

Since we had a wedding celebration to attend later that evening, we decided to head back to the hotel to relax for a bit. The weather was perfect, so we sat outside and read for a little while before changing for the party.

My graduate school friend Laura and her husband Gaurav got married a year ago by a justice of peace and her parents acted as witnesses. It was a small, simple ceremony, but unfortunately, they were not able to have a reception. So a year later, they invited a small group of us up to Door County for the celebration. There were about 40 of us at the White Gull Inn, where we enjoyed drinks and appetizers, as well as our very own personal fish boil. (Luckily I ordered the chicken for both Steve and myself, since we had fish the night before.) It was lovely catching up with Laura--who had moved to New York last summer--as well as getting to know some of her other friends. After dinner, we made our way to another bar for an after-party, which ended with a small group of us closing the place around 2 am. (Like I said before, Door County is not a late night place, so naturally the place was deserted by 11 p.m..)

Sunday morning, Steve and I woke up early and headed up north to Sister Bay to have brunch at one of the most popular restaurants in the area: Al Johnson's Swedish Restaurant. Why is it so popular you ask? Well, there are goats on the roof. Yes, that's right, real life goats graze on the grass-covered, sod roof. What their purpose is, I'm not exactly sure, but they have made the place famous. When we arrived, we quickly circled the place, but the goats were nowhere to be found. Inside, waitresses dressed in traditional Scandinavian outfits served us some Swedish pancakes with lingonberries. I had a side of Swedish meatballs--because I had to--and Steve had the sausages. It was quite delicious, but very filling. Our waitress told us the goats would start "work" at about 9:30, so we would definitely catch them leaving. And sure enough, we did. There were four grouped along one slope of the roof, prancing around happily for all to see.

After snapping some pictures, we got back on the road and headed south for the long drive to Chicago. As we made our way through more small towns in the region, it became more and more evident to me that Door County was not only a place to retreat for a peaceful weekend, it was also a place to escape many of the modern amenities that we have grown accustomed to. (Fact, my cell phone lost all service and data coverage just north of Sturgeon Bay, so I was disconnected for the whole weekend.) Sure, our hotel had Wi-Fi and cable, but, for the most part, technology does not play a big role in the culture of Door County. The architecture is reminiscent of the early 1950s and people are a lot more likely to be seen conversing with neighbors on the street than chatting on a cell phone. It is a time machine back to simpler times when things were more laid back and personable, and I have to say--despite being completely helpless without my cell phone--that was a welcome feeling.

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