In the Pechmann family, one Sunday each year has earned the kind of reverence usually reserved for the most sacred of holidays. Up there with Palm Sunday and Easter is Booya Sunday, the day when the North St. Paul Fire Department serves its famous slow-cooked stew.
Robert and Rita Pechmann don’t know how many times they’ve spent Booya Sunday at a picnic table and slurped a lumpy, reddish soup from Styrofoam bowls. This particular booya — the name refers to both the food and the event — has been running since 1927.
“It’s something you’ve got to do every year,” said Robert, 72, who grew up going to the annual fest with his extended family.
His wife goes with him “to keep our marriage together.”
To some Minnesotans’ ears, “booya” is nothing more than an exclamation shouted by former Gov. Jesse Ventura whenever something went his way. But for a passionate segment of the state’s population — mostly those from towns radiating from St. Paul — booya is a quintessential fall tradition, a community gathering and a childhood memory all centered on a stew of epic proportions.
Its origins are murky, with immigrants from Hungary to Belgium laying claim to the original recipe. Most fans presume the name, sometimes spelled “booyah,” comes from a corruption of the French word for broth, bouillon.
But the great community supper and fundraiser is undoubtedly a thing of the Upper Midwest, with booyas a rite of autumn in parts of Wisconsin and Michigan, too. They are akin to lutefisk dinners and smelt fry feeds, where individuals work together to nourish hundreds of mouths at once. The North St. Paul firefighters cooked up 510 gallons of the stuff this year — and sold out in less than an hour.
“The communal pot is timeless and just human,” said Amy Thielen, Food Network host and author of “The New Midwestern Table.” “There’s a kind of art to homing in on one dish and making it for the masses.”
Not all Minnesotans have grown up attending booyas. Gavin Kaysen, chef and owner of downtown hot spot Spoon and Stable, never heard of it when he was a youngster in Bloomington. But he took to it immediately. “That should be our chili,” Kaysen said. “We’ve got to have something besides chicken and wild rice soup.”
The community stew has taken on symbolic meaning at the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment. Kate Knuth, director of the institute’s Boreas Leadership Program, started a weekly meeting for graduate students, and she dubbed it “booya.” Once a year, the stew is served (she even ordered a 10-gallon kettle for it), but the rest of the time, it’s simply about bringing people together to share ideas.
“I like the idea of everyone coming and putting something in the pot, both literally and metaphorically,” said Knuth, who grew up attending the annual booya at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in New Brighton.
Indeed, for many booya aficionados, the stew is secondary to the company.
“I think people love to get together and chitchat,” said Diana Mayers, 73, who was dining with the Pechmanns, her cousins. Their picnic table was one of the rowdiest in the park.
“Events like these attract people who love to tell stories and have some sort of healthy self-esteem about their cooking,” said Thielen, whose TV show, “Heartland Table,” is filmed at her home in northern Minnesota. “It’s really a storytelling time.”
A long, laborious process
The North St. Paul booya officially begins a full day before the event, when a crew of firefighters gets together and starts chopping vegetables and slipping meat into massive black kettles. Come nightfall, the meat comes out and gets deboned. In the morning, more vegetables go in and everything gets stirred together with giant wooden paddles until it’s time to serve.
“We don’t sleep,” said Fire Chief Scott Duddeck. “Everybody plans their life around this weekend.”
Booya-making requires special equipment, notably the cast-iron kettles. Some heat over wood fires like in the old days, while others hook up to gas.
In the early 1980s, the volunteer firefighters of North St. Paul relocated their wood-fire booya from Hause Park to Casey Lake Park, where they built their own dedicated “booya building.” The cement-block structure contains 12 kettles ranging from 40 to 80 gallons each.
But just having the proper kettle isn’t enough. Also integral to a good booya are the secrets contained in the recipe, usually in the form of a unique spice mixture passed down from generation to generation.
Roger Beran is considered the booya “specialist” at St. Jerome Catholic Church in Maplewood. He’s been cooking it for 45 years. (That carryout booya kicks off at 6 a.m. Saturday.)
“I’ve got the old-fashioned recipe that was handwritten about 50 years ago,” Beran said. “Everybody does it a little bit differently, and we’re very popular with ours.”
Firefighter Scott Weber’s grandfather started the North St. Paul booya almost 90 years ago. His father took over, and now he’s the keeper of the recipe. “We’ve been told it’s one of the best in Minnesota,” he said.
There are some similarities across the various booyas. A rich broth coaxed from oxtail; pieces of chicken, beef and veal cooked so long they’ve turned to strings; a thick graininess from melted potatoes; and the tinge of tomato.
Bowls at Casey Lake Park went for $4 each, but most people bought it by the gallon for $20. Throngs of people lined up hours early with their own stainless steel pots and waited patiently to fill them. Others got creative, like the customer who took home 5 gallons of booya in a bright orange Home Depot bucket.
But all good things come to an end, and quickly, the kettles were depleted.
“ ’K, guys, we’re out. All done,” a firefighter hollered to a line full of sad faces.
“This happened to me once before, and you would think I would have learned my lesson,” said Carolyn Howard, who was turned away with her son and two empty pots.
The last drops went to Cindy Rowe Carlson, who bought three pots. One was for her mother, one to eat that evening with her daughter and son-in-law and the rest to freeze and enjoy all winter long. The idea of warming up with a bowl on a cold day conjured a memory for Carlson.
“It brings back the days when my father was alive and booya was a big deal,” she said. “In fact, you didn’t say ‘booya’ nonchalantly. It was ‘BOOYA.’ With enthusiasm.”