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A fine kettle of fish on Lake Michigan

There's nothing cheesy about the picturesque charm of Door County, Wis., except perhaps its unsuitable nickname -- the Cape Cod of the Midwest.

June 01, 2003|Marshall S. Berdan | Special to The Times

Ephraim, Wis. — In retrospect, I should have chosen the 5 p.m. seating. But the 6:30 seating offered the opportunity to catch both of Door County's premier light shows: the sun setting over Green Bay and the pyrotechnic climax of the region's celebrated fish boil. At least that had been my thinking until I discovered that the kettle of honor was warming up behind Ephraim's Old Post Office Restaurant and that the much-anticipated boil-over appeared to be timed to coincide exactly with the solar grand finale out front.

Reluctantly I stayed put. Sunsets I've seen before, I reasoned, but a fish boil, never. I'd been told that every tourist who visits this part of the country should experience one, and 10 local restaurants offer the flaming feast.

Our cook and fire chief, Earl, warmed up with a few corny fish jokes before confessing that no one really knows whether Door County's signature entree owes its origins to lumberjacks or Scandinavian fishermen. In either case, the recipe was simple.

First, generous portions of red potatoes and white onions were loaded into a cast-iron kettle of heavily salted (five pounds worth) water. Earl's thrice-nightly routine began with step two, lowering a tray of fresh local whitefish fillets into the now boiling water. With a little time to kill, Earl began extolling the virtues of Door County, beginning with the hackneyed analogy that "Door County is the Cape Cod of the Midwest."

Having just spent the entire day wandering its bicoastal lengths, I couldn't agree. Cape Cod is a whole arm of shifting sand that extends into the cold Atlantic. Door County, a limestone plateau, is a fractured pinkie that splays out into the even colder Lake Michigan, off the cooking mitt that is Wisconsin.

"But it's not the Dells," he continued with a broadside at the state's leading resort area. "So you don't have to spend a whole lot of money if you don't want to." To prove his point, he recited a list of Door County's free -- or at least cheap -- attractions. As I had just spent a grand total of $3 seeing most of these sites, I nodded in agreement.

Soon it was time for the secret ingredient, a quart of kerosene, which Earl added with much dramatic fanfare. Not into the kettle, but underneath it. The result was a towering 10-second flare-up that caused the frothing concoction to boil over, washing out most of the salt water, and leaving the fish, potatoes and onions moist and lightly seasoned.

The show over, we regrouped on the front porch, where I was pleased to see that the sun hadn't yet disappeared beyond the shimmering gold lame surface of Eagle Harbor.

Ideal time of year

I had chosen an excellent time to experience Door County: midweek in mid-September -- two weeks too soon for the fall colors, perhaps, but two weeks after the summer crowds. Despite the Chamber of Commerce's attempts to promote the region as a year-round destination, the vast majority of visitors descend during the summer months, when the days are warm. The pick-your-own season for cherries lasts from late July through mid-August. To see acres and acres of these delicate pink-and-white blossoms, aim for late May.

I had driven 250 miles from Chicago, making it as far as Sturgeon Bay the first night, halfway up the 90-mile-long peninsula that is Door County. Named for the fish once plentiful in its waters, Sturgeon Bay found new economic life when the five-mile ship canal connecting Green Bay and Lake Michigan was completed in the 1880s. With 9,100 year-round residents, the Victorian town is now Door County's metropolis. It's also where the peninsula narrows to about 10 miles in width and the economic baton passes from agriculture to tourism.

My first stop that morning had been the Door County Museum (suggested donation $2), the Chicago Tribune's candidate for "best small museum in the Midwest." The structure is loaded with artifacts and displays that trace the county's natural and human history from the indigenous Potawatomi and Chippewa Indians through what is commonly referred to as "the pioneer days."

Among the more interesting things to learn about the region is that, in sequence, it belonged to the Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin territories, and when French explorer Jean Nicolet first landed here in 1634, he was convinced he had made it to Asia by way of the Northwest Passage. After days of powwowing with some Winnebago Indians, he realized he'd gotten only as far as someplace named "Ouisconsin."

Not surprisingly, much is also made of Door County's trademark cherries, some 10 million pounds of which (mostly Montmorency) are processed each year from about 3,000 acres. There are also 2,000 acres of apples.

Before heading north, I stopped in at the Sturgeon Bay Community Development Corp., where the appropriately named Brenda Fish gave me a map of the county's 10 lighthouses. Only two are regularly open to visitors.

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