Heading Outdoors: Finding Wisconsin in a Door County fish boil

Pelletier's preserving 150-year-old legacy in WI
Posted at 11:10 PM, Oct 18, 2016
and last updated 2016-10-19 00:10:35-04
When searching for what makes something a "true Wisconsin experience," many people head outdoors.
We're introducing a new series where NBC26's Billy Wagness takes you there, showing you the people who make these woods and waters something special.
We're off to Fish Creek in Door County, where something's cooking at Pelletier's.
Autumn in Door County is a season that brings change on every leaf.
"They're on the verge," says a giddy Diane Hayward, who traveled from Rockford, IL to the region to see her granddaughter in Appleton. "I think we saw them changing today." 
But the embers of some traditions keep burning more than a century later.
"They smell the smoke from the streets, and that brings them in," says Pelletier's master boiler Matthew Peterson, as he prepares the evening's first boil, "and then, they want to know the history about the fish boils. And the fish boils go back well over 150 years." 
Matthew Peterson has been stoking the flames of this tradition for years at Pelletier's Restaurant & Fish Boil, in Fish Creek.
"I've been here, at Pelletier's, on my own for 15 years," says Peterson, who adds he's learned much of the trade from his father. "I've been in the restaurant business pretty much my entire life. So, it just becomes.. a family tradition." 
For the most part, a "fish boil" is exactly what it sounds like: a big kettle filled with water, and an open fire. As far as ingredients, Peterson says it only requires a few of the right vegetables, in this particular case "little baby reds, all locally grown."
While lake trout used to be the preferred fish, Peterson says today's fish boils are often (and best) served with plenty of Lake Michigan whitefish. 
It's as much as it's a spectator sport as it is dinner.  As hungry onlookers gather, Peterson explains the age-old process, and tells them tales of fishermen and farmers in the 1850's, working together to feed the peninsula's settlers with whatever was fresh that day.
"Some of the older kettles we've used in the past are the old Speed Queen washing machine tubs made out of stainless steel," laughs Peterson, "they worked perfect." 
When the dinner bell rings it's time for the finishing touch: a little fuel oil to the base of the fire, making it a true fish boil.
"That increases the temperature just enough," says Peterson, "[and] brings those [fish] oils right over the side. We seriously have over 1,200 boils a season." 
Throughout the past century, not much has changed about this iconic Wisconsin tradition, although the popularity of it only seems to be growing with every bite.
"Whatever it was going to be, I had no clue," laughs Hayward, as a mostly empty dinner plate sits in front of her, "but, it's cool, isn't it!" 
Peterson says a healthy dose of butter for flavor helps ensure this dish's place in Wisconsin's heart.
"[I'm] pleasantly surprised! A lot of butter, it looks like," says Hayward, "but, how tender the potatoes were, [and] the onion? You have to do this!"
It's a tradition you'll have to sink your teeth into the next time you're heading outdoors, in Wisconsin.
Fish boils at Pelletier's start on Mother's Day weekend, and run typically to the end of October.