Abelskiver and Community on Washington Island

By Heidi Hodges | February 18, 2015


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“You came all the way to Washington Island for Abelskiver pancakes?” the Islanders asked, incredulous. “In the middle of winter?”

“Well, we figured it was easier than making them ourselves,” I answered.

If you haven’t had Abelskiver, let me tell you, it’s a one-of-a-kind treat. They’re a Scandanavian specialty–the fluffy batter, made from ingredients like whipped egg whites, is fried in cast iron pans carved out with half-spheres. When one side is set, the pancake balls are quickly rolled over in their cast-iron cups, using toothpicks. It’s tiring, hot work. Especially with half a dozen pans going at the same time.

The resutling pancakes look like crispy, golden golf balls. And, when made correctly, they are as light and fluffy as a pillow.

I figured it was worth crossing icy Death’s Door for an Abelskiver dinner. My mother, of Danish ancenstory who grew up with the pancakes, and my pancake-loving young sons were in agreement with me.

The only way to the island is by boat, so you have to abide by the ferry’s schedule. And in winter, you need a resevation. Still, it was tight. The tail end of our car was precariously close to the edge of the ferry.

Part of the adventure of going to Washington Island, located off the tip of the Door Peninsula in Lake Michigam, is the ferry ride. And it is an especially unforgettable experience in winter when ice chokes the passage. The ferry chugs along, grinding thought the .ice chunks

After unloading at island, we drove down the long, curvy road to the main part of town, in search of our night’s lodging.

We knew the quaint hotel we had booked was a winner when we pulled up and saw a display of frozen northern, perch and lawyers hanging on a line near the front entrance—entries in the annual Lions Club Fishing Derby. My two young sons were psyched: seeing totally awesome, dead fish and eating pancakes for dinner? That’s paradise for an eight-year-old.

We arrived early for the meal–a Bethel sailor’s church fundraiser—hungry and excited to mingle with the friendly Islanders.

Washington Island is a magical place. Once you get off the ferry, there’s a feeling you walked in the front door of a family reunion. It feels like coming home.

At the community dinner, I snuck into the kitchen to watch the folks making Abelskiver—a happy commotion led by “Grandma” Joy Gunnlaugsson, a robust woman in her 90s. “Here, try this,” she said, holding out a pan of hot pancake balls. On the table were bowls of applesauce she made from wild apples she picked on the island that autumn.

The next day, we were homeward bound on the ferry. Thick blocks of broken-up ice glowed brilliant blue in the hazy sunshine. When we left the lee of the island, heavy swells in the ice pack tossed the ferry gently, delighting the kids.

Returning to the mainland Door County is, strangely, a culture shock.

Even the quiet, quaint mainland seems positively urban after an Abelskiver night on Washington Island.

Heidi Hodges

Heidi Hodges

Heidi Hodges is contributing editor of Door County Magazine and a freelance photographer.

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