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Chicago native sees fish boil as one laughing matter

Earl Jones (right) Chicago native has reigned over fish boils Old Post Office Restaurant Ephraim for 13 years. | Lori

Earl Jones (right), a Chicago native, has reigned over fish boils at the Old Post Office Restaurant in Ephraim for 13 years. | Lori Rackl~Sun-Times

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OLD POST OFFICE: The restaurant is part of the Edgewater Resort, 10040 Water St. (Hwy. 42), in the Door County town of Ephraim. Fish boils are held Monday-Saturday and Sundays on holiday weekends, May through October. Call (920) 854-4034 for reservations and fish boil times. Ask for a table outdoors. The restaurant faces Lake Michigan and the sunsets are spectacular;

TIP: Ephraim is a dry community, so the restaurants aren’t allowed to sell alcohol. If mama needs her juice, bring along a bottle of wine or a six-pack.

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Updated: May 9, 2012 9:45AM

EPHRAIM, Wis. — Some places and foods are inextricably linked. You can’t come to Chicago without digging into deep-dish pizza. You can’t go to Philly without trying a steak sandwich (unless you’re a vegetarian … and even then …)

And you certainly can’t visit Door County without going to a fish boil, a Scandinavian tradition that’s permeated this 75-mile long peninsula.

The ingredients for a good fish boil are simple: red potatoes, onions and whitefish that were swimming around Lake Michigan earlier that day. But the secret ingredient for making a good fish boil a great fish boil is the boil master, because this culinary experience is as much about entertainment as it is about eating.

Boil masters don’t come much better than Earl Jones, a wiry, wise-cracking Chicago native who’s reigned over fish boils at the Old Post Office Restaurant in Ephraim for 13 years.

Jones, 69, does his shtick six nights a week from May through October for an audience of diners seated around a fire pit in back of the restaurant.

“How do you communicate with a fish?” Jones asks, as he walks around the fire carrying a big pail of raw whitefish chunks, angling the bucket so people can take pictures.

“You drop him a line,” Jones says, prompting giggles from the kids and groans from the adults.

“Why do mermaids wear seashells?” he continues, after plopping the fish in a boiling cauldron of water.

“Because B shells are too small and D shells are too big.”

That one makes the adults giggle.

While dinner cooks, Jones takes a respite from his comedy routine to explain the logistics of the fish boil. Potatoes boil for a half hour and the fish takes between eight and 11 minutes, he tells us. The last step of throwing kerosene on the fire to spark massive flames not only looks cool; it causes the water to spill over the sides of the pot, taking those unpleasant-tasting fish oils with it.

Jones, 69, went to Chicago’s Lane Tech High School and had several jobs — including a repairman for Hammond Organs — before moving to Door County in 1994. But it was his stint as an usher at the Chicago Theatre that prepared him for his role as boil master.

“I had a routine I’d do with the people when I was head usher,” Jones said. “What I’m doing out here is the same thing all over again.”

Except this is a theater where it’s OK to yell “fire!” Jones tells us to get our cameras ready as he gears up to douse the pyre with a quart of kerosene. Whosh! A tower of flames and smoke shoots into the summer sky. Show’s over. Time to eat.

“I’ll clam up now,” Jones says. “All my jokes smelt, and I’m giving you a haddock.”

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