Wednesday, July 14, 2010
The fish boil is a Door County tradition that, depending on whom you ask, was either brought to Wisconsin from the "old country" or originated right there on the Door peninsula a century and a half earlier. The premise is simple -- potatoes, onions, salt and chunks of Lake Michigan whitefish are introduced at specific times to a large pot of boiling water over an open fire. The finale is the boilover, when the fire is doused with kerosene, which causes the water to boil over the sides of the pot, which simultaneously removes the accumulated fish oils and douses the fire. Time to eat.
A good boilmaster is equal parts cook, thermodynamics engineer, showman, interpretive guide and pyromaniac. Such a person works the fire pot at Pelletier's Restaurant in Fish Creek, Wisconsin. Seven times a day, seven days a week for 26 weeks of the year, Matt Peterson, a third generation boilmaster, stokes the fire, engages the crowd, times the addition of ingredients to the pot, and poses for pictures. Together, we estimated that Matt's image is snapped about 5,ooo times in a given week, possibly giving him the edge over the goats on the grass roof of Al Johnson's restaurant in Sister Bay. Not a bad way to make a living.
I happened upon the 8:00 p.m. fish boil at Pelletier's, the last of the day. Matt confided to the crowd that the day's finale gets an extra charge -- double the dose of kerosene. (You'll note in the photographs below that everyone is standing well behind the chain fencing -- everyone, that is, except for a certain photographer who had poked his head under the chain to get those shots.)
This was a single-pot finale. During the busier dinner hours, Matt will have two pots going at once. He explained that in a two-pot scenario, the first pot gets a regular dose of fuel while the second gets a double dose. He tried to explain to me the dynamics of the timing and sizes of the charges to ensure proper consistency between the food in the two pots. I wasn't buying it. It was mainly to provide a better show for the patrons, wasn't it?
"Just between you and me, yes," he admitted.
I staked myself out in a corner of the chained-off boil area to wait for the conflagration. Two things I ignored -- the scorch marks on the ground and the singed shrubbery behind me -- should have told me that I was going to be pretty close to the action. I also used a very wide angle lens to frame the shot. It would catch the fireball and crowd reaction nicely, but it would also make objects in the viewfinder closer than they appeared. I set my camera to fire five frames a second, set the focus and exposure to manual so the fireball would not throw either setting off and waited for the blast.
The blast came and I felt warm. Very warm. In the second shot of the sequence above, it appears as if Matt is looking my way to assess the extent of the restaurant's liability at setting a photographer on fire. The third shot of the sequence shows Matt disregarding me in favor of getting out of Dodge himself.
After examining my arms and finding no singed hairs, I met up with my wife, who for some reason doesn't share my love of exploding pots of fish, and headed over to Sunset Park to catch the sunset and its watchers.
Photographs © 2010 James Jordan.