June 16, 2013

A Taste of Wisconsin: Door County with Christine DeSmet

Wisconsin is about beer, cheese, farms, fishing, festivals and fun.

Every Wisconsin town has a festival for something, including hamburgers in Seymour, cow chip throwing in Prairie du Sac and of course beer festivals, including one that was held June 15 in Door County, Wisconsin.

Door County is known as the Cape Cod of the Midwest. It’s a tourist mecca, a thumb of land that reaches into Lake Michigan. Door County was founded by Icelanders and northern Europeans. The Icelanders settled Washington Island in the 1850s. Belgians began settling the lower half of the county in 1853, in villages such as Brussels. The regional area including neighboring counties boasts probably the largest rural population of Belgians in the United States.

Neon signs are banned from the upper half of Door County. It’s quaint and pastoral although there’s a lot going on and to do. A lone two-lane county highway snakes along the shoreline and through the villages.  Stoplights are rare.

People flock here for the eleven lighthouses and harbor shipping lights.  They tour the artist shops, the winery trail, the excellent restaurants and fish boils,  boating, golf, hiking, swimming, fishing, the outdoor theater and concerts,  cooking schools, arts workshops and myriads of other activities. In autumn, it’s all about the roadside stands and buying apples and pumpkins while enjoying the spectacular red and orange colors of the maple trees.
Fish fries are a big Friday-night tradition in Wisconsin. The famous Door County fish boils entail the chef cooking fish in large kettles or big oil drums over outdoor fire.  Spilling water onto the fire causes eruptions of steam and applause.

The county is best known for its cherries and cherry orchards. Cherries festoon, and are made into, everything from BBQ sauce to wine. You can buy cherry-chocolate coffee here to go with the fudge at a shop I love in Egg Harbor called the Chocolate Chicken.  For my new mystery book series I created a cherry-vanilla fudge recipe using Door County cherries.
Roadside stands are a fave of mine. A big one is Koepsel’s Farm Market not too far out of Sister Bay on Highway 57. The market carries hundreds of Wisconsin-brewed beers along with many other Door County products.

Great beaches and Lighthouses line the county. Door County has one of the world’s few pure rock beaches, Pebble Beach. The stones are smooth so you can walk on them and swim in the crystal clear water. If you go to the south side of the county, you’ll find big sand dunes. Here’s a State map of the beaches in Door County:  http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/Beaches/maps/door.pdf

The county includes islands off its northeast tip; many visitors take a ferry over to Washington Island where wheat is grown for beer and Wisconsin-made vodka. Here’s an odd fact:  there’s a bitters club you can join on the island at Nelsen’s Bitters Pub, established in 1899, it’s the oldest continuously operating bar in Wisconsin. To beat Prohibition, the owner got a pharmaceutical license to sell Angustora Bitters, which is 90-proof and sells about fifty cases of bitters a year.

After a long day of enjoying the many activities in Door County, where do people with kids end up for a treat?

Go to Wilson’s Ice Cream Parlor and Restaurant in Ephraim, famous for its shakes and sundaes made with freshly-picked raspberries and more.

Another popular spot is Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant in Sister Bay where you can watch the goats eating on the grass roof. Check out the view from the goat cam:  http://www.aljohnsons.com/goat-cam/
Don’t hesitate to stop at out-of-the-way places to watch sunsets, such as Fred and Fuzzy’s Waterfront Bar and Grill at the end of a long, winding, wooded road near Sister Bay.

Farming is huge on the ridges overlooking Lake Michigan. Belgians are known for lavish gardens and flowers, solid red-brick houses, good crops and plenty of Holsteins that produce milk for wonderful Wisconsin cheeses, cream and butter—and locally-made fudge. 

Belgians here are known for kermiss—harvest festivals, where you might find booyah. Booyah is a chicken stew often made as a fundraiser in communities. It’s created like the old story of “Stone Soup,” where everybody brings different ingredients, such as carrots, cabbage or other vegetables. These ingredients are put into a huge pot or steel drum that cooks over an open fire. Everybody brings an empty plastic ice cream pail to buy booyah to take home.

Pies are considered the “calling card” of Belgians—along with Belgian beer and chocolates, of course. Favorite Belgian pies include rice pie (a custard type of pie made with eggs), and pies made with local ingredients including apples, raspberries, and of course cherries. Traditional Belgian pies are made with larger European-style pans.

By now I hope you’re thirsty and hungry! You’ll have to plan a trip to Door County, Wisconsin for a brew and booyah!

Christine DeSmet is a Belgian and the author of the new mystery series starring a Belgian sleuth and set in Door County, Wisconsin, The Fudge Shop Mystery Series. First-Degree Fudge debuts September 2013. You can find the author at www.ChristineDeSmet.com. She teaches novel writing and screenwriting at University of Wisconsin-Madison and can also be found giving writing tips at www.UWwriters.wordpress.com
(pictures provided by author, doorcounty.com, sauk prarie area chamber of commerce, Lori O'Neill)


  1. Delightful blog about a state I've never visited. It makes me want to explore Door county. My mouth is watering over cherry-chocolate coffee and the booyah sounds lucious. I hope your Belgian detective becomes as famous as Hercule Poirot, although something tells me he'll be from the Dutch part of Belgium.

  2. Wisconsin always makes me think of one of the favorite authors of my youth, Jim Kjelgaard, who grew up here in Pennsylvania but moved out there after marrying a Wisconsin girl. I wasn't aware of the big Belgian influence in the state.

  3. This is the ONLY part of Wisconsin we haven't ever camped in because I've been told the sites are booked in January! Plus we usually avoid areas that are too full of tourists.

    But your advice here makes me want to re-think that. Maybe someday we'll head up there. If you want to try making a sour cherry pie, I've put my family's favorite recipe on my website on the aptly-named page, "pies".

    Thanks for such an insightful view of what sounds like a great area to camp.

  4. What a wonderful word picture you have painted of the beautiful part of Wisconsin. As a native Michigander, I've had opportunity to travel in and around Wisconsin, but the little finger of the state is an area I've never visited. Obviously, I've missed the most beautiful part of the state!

  5. AnonymousJune 17, 2013

    Chistine: Always thought Upper Michigan should have been a part of Wisconsin instead of a consolation prize to Michigan when the Feds, in their usual twisted wisdom, decided to give Toledo to Ohio. I do love Door County. Thanks for a reminder of its many great features. Good post! Jane T.

  6. Love your descriptions of the delights of Door County! And I love visiting the communities there. Can't wait until your book comes out. It's a great setting for a mystery, and your Belgian sleuth sounds intriguing.

  7. What wonderful memories you stirred up with your description of Door County. We always went for the Scarecrow Festival in October. Can't wait to read the books! BB

  8. My children are 1/8 Belgian. What a fun trip that would be. In the meantime, will look into First Degree Fudge.

  9. Excellent post, Christine. I have been in Wisconsin a couple of times... I must travel back there again.

  10. Thank you, everyone, for great comments. I hope you visit Door County sometime soon. The fall is a great time because of the color and the roadsides filled with pumpkins and apples. Many people stay in Green Bay for the ease of finding a hotel, then make Door County their "day trip." It's only minutes away from Green Bay, but of course it'll take you longer to go all the way to the tip of Door County to catch a ferry to Washington Island. I'm glad you enjoyed my post! --Christine DeSmet

  11. You must check out Bjorklunden outside of Bailey's Harbor. http://www.lawrence.edu/s/bjorklunden/chapel

    Come visit me while I am teaching watercolor classes there July 28-August 2 or in September 22-27th. I'll give you a personal tour.

    The nearest candy shop is the Yum Yum Tree in Bailey's Harbor.

  12. Thanks for the wonderful post! We are heading up next week for a vacation with our kids and will most certainly check out some of the sites you have listed (last time we were there was more than 10 years ago - prior to children!)


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