OBJECT HISTORY: Two-sided Spork

Lawrence Wickman (right), owner of the Viking helped chef Helmer Erickson Aug 30 1963. Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society, WHS #63378
A family portrait of White Gull Inn founder Dr. Herman Welcker, his wife Henriette, and only daughter Mathilda. Courtesy of the White Gull Inn.

The Door County fish boil is a culinary event local to Northern Wisconsin and it involves a few custom tools not found anywhere else. The Master Boiler cooks a meal of fish, potatoes, and vegetables over a roaring fire in an impressively large 22-gallon stainless steel pot.[1] Custom made by a local welder, two stainless steel baskets – imagine a large colander – rest inside the oversized pot, allowing the Master Boiler to lift the food from the boiling water.[2]

The most unique fish boil tool originated at a restaurant called White Gull Inn in Fish Creek, Wisconsin where a master boiler developed the two-sided spork. The White Gull Inn was built in 1896 by Dr. Herman Welcker, a German immigrant and medical practitioner who left his field to enter the tourism business.[3] At the time, Fish Creek, Wisconsin, was an up-and-coming tourist destination. Today, the inn retains its historic charm with a spacious porch, wood furniture, and floral wallpaper, but a few important developments have occurred over the years. The most impactful of these would have to be the popularization of nightly fish boils.

White Gull Inn. Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society, WHS #125881

In the mid-1960s, a few innovative business owners had the idea to offer fish boils, an event typically reserved for church gatherings and community events, for tourists. Russ Ostrom, a shipbuilder from nearby Sturgeon Bay, was a long-time attendee of community fish boils, where he often brought his accordion to entertain guests while the meal cooked.[4] One night, in a pinch, the owners of the White Gull Inn asked Ostrom to fill in as Master Boiler, a chance opportunity that turned into a decades-long career at the helm of the White Gull’s boil.

Close up of the two-sided spork being used at the White Gull Inn. Photo courtesy of the White Gull Inn.

At some point during his term, Ostrom invented the two-sided spork, a simple instrument that serves the practical needs of the Master Boiler.[5] Essentially, it is a ladle and a two-pronged fork secured together at the handle. The three-foot-long utensil’s ladle looks like any you’d find in a normal kitchen: metal and about a foot and a half long. The same goes for the fork: a one-and-a-half-foot-long handle that has metal prongs at the end of it. The two tools are bolted together at the middle, creating a massive, three-foot-long utensil that serves all the Master Boiler’s needs.

The fork’s main purpose is to test the potatoes for doneness, a key step in timing out the perfect boil-over. The ladle, on the other hand, scoops the foam and debris off the top of the pot. Nobody is quite sure why Ostrom created this tool, but the current manager’s theory is simply that he got tired of carrying two separate instruments![6] Regardless, the invention of this tool and the Door County fish boil highlight the ingenuity of Wisconsinites – they take what is available to them and make something great.

Written by Maddy McGlone, May 2021.

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The Fish Boil Tradition

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[1] Meredith Coulson-Kanter, email message to author, February 17, 2021.

[2] Meredith Coulson-Kanter, email message to author, March 2, 2021.

[3] “Welcome to the White Gull Inn,” The White Gull Inn, accessed April 9, 2021 https://www.whitegullinn.com/about-us#:~:text=The%20White%20Gull%20Inn%20has,Meredith%20and%20Chris%20Coulson%2DKanter.

[4]  Patricia Wells, “Fish Boil: Culinary Tradition In Bunyan Country,” New York Times, Aug. 22, 1979.

[5] Meredith Coulson-Kanter, email message to author, February 17, 2021.

[6] Meredith Coulson-Kanter, email message to author, March 2, 2021.