The Spirit (and Food and Drink) of Door County

If the world ended and nature took back its domain, I imagine it would look a lot like Door County. No, not the Settlement Shops of Fish Creek and the throngs of elder aged tourists and coach busses, but the part of the peninsula in Sturgeon Bay, Lake Michigan side. More specifically, the birch trees, pine and Midwestern brush of Whitefish Dunes State Park rising high into the hills, overlooking the white, sandy beaches that squeak under your feet of Whitefish Bay.

Harvey, our yellow lab Cubby and I went to this special place last weekend, literally scooping up the last old world log cabin for rent on this quiet DC beach, where property value is now worth in the millions. Luckily, the residents of Cave Point Drive, just up from Glidden Lodge where I vacationed with my family as a child (earlier, it was Bay Shore Inn, Sturgeon Bay Side), have worked extremely hard to keep this part of the peninsula as “untouched” as possible. Sure, the houses are huge these days, but they’re tucked quietly in between thick throngs of trees and woods where white tailed deer prance about and the seagulls make friends with the geese.

Visitors (those from Illinois charmingly known by Wisconsin locals and Packers fanatics as FIPs – I won’t go into the specifics) tend to flock to the Bay side “because there’s more to do and it’s closer to the shopping and antiques.” I prefer this part of the Lake side, surrounded as you travel inward by farms, Dairy cows and horses hanging out in the Prairie grasses.

If you stare directly out into the lake, just as the sun has come up and begun to shed its crystal glass speckles over calm blue waves, if you blur your eyes a little it gets harder and harder to tell where the line of the sky meets the earth. It almost feels like you’re staring into heaven, or at the very least, some other plane, or universe. You feel small.

The proximity of Lake Michigan has created a sense of “terroir” about the space. The produce that grows here tastes sweet, thanks to the cool water winds that blow through at night to chill the carrots, beets and spinach, grapes and apples, helping them get their sugars going.  Though fishing in Lake Michigan is limited, old school fishermen still wearing big rubber boots and overalls snatch up what whitefish, perch, trout and the occasional walleye they can get.  Some goes into the fryer come Friday for a crispy tradition; other filets spend hours in the outdoor smokers, stacked with applewood. I imagine slicing open a larger catch, stuffing it with lemon and fresh herbs and maybe some garlic, slow roasting the thing like a branzino over charcoal and chips.

Some of my favorite food- and drink-related things about Door County:

To Buy:

  • SweeTango apples (tangier, tarter than Honey Crisp but just as crisp and juicy) from Wood Orchard in Egg Harbor, plus apple cider and doughnuts same place
  • That said, also Honey Crisp apples from Seaquist Orchard in Sister Bay
  • Fresh, super squeaky cheese curds from Renard’s cheese (buy day of at the shop in Sturgeon Bay or local businesses that get daily deliveries)
  • Savory Spoon Cooking School in Ellison Bay for cooking classes with Janice Thomas and artisan Wisconsin cheeses next door at her cheese shop (favorites are Pleasant Ridge made with grassfed milk and Bleu Mont Dairy for old fashioned, cave-aged, stinky varieties, Mt. Sterling Cooperative for raw goat’s milk cheese, Nordic Creamery cheeses and butter – available at Green City Market)
  • Brats and sausage for grilling from Marchant’s in Sturgeon Bay

To Go:

  • Wilson’s in Ephraim for ice cream (specifically, double scoop, French vanilla and some other scoop ridiculously loaded with caramel, nuts and chocolate in a waffle cone)
  • Friday night fish fries (perch) at Schartner’s, Sturgeon Bay; outdoor old school fish boils at Square Rigger Gallery in Jacksonport (whitefish caught that morning cooked over an open fire by local firemen)
  • Fried cheese curds, martinis, and the cherry pie a la mode at Danny’s, Glidden Lodge
  • Wild Tomato in Fish Creek for wood-fired pizza topped with local Midwestern veggies and seasonal tomatoes (yes, they have a cheese curd and bacon version)
  • Farmers markets: Tuesdays in Sister Bay, Saturdays in Sturgeon Bay

To Indulge:

  • Cherry and pecan pie from Sweetie Pies in Fish Creek
  • Gluten free chocolate chip cookies by Katarina Pastries (available at the Sturgeon Bay Saturday Farmer’s Market)
  • Fudge (chocolate peanut butter, chocolate caramel and cherry) from Wood Orchard Market in Egg Harbor)

To Drink:

  • Death’s Door vodka, gin and white whiskey (named after the treacherous waters at the tip of the Peninsula where the bay waters near Washington Island meet Lake Michigan)
  • Door County vodka for infusing with thick cut, applewood smoked bacon from pastured pigs
  • Fresh-roasted coffee beans and Colombian-style coffee from Door County Coffee & Tea Co.
  • Local (less sweet versions) wine from Door Peninsula Winery in Carlsville
  • Shipwrecked beer from Egg Harbor; New Glarus where you can find it


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