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Jon Pietsch of South St. Paul tasted a competitor’s offering at a past event.

Joey Mcleister, Star Tribune

Walt Books, South St. Paul resident and booya cook-off impresario, has presiding over the city’s annual contest for almost 25 years. “It’s part of the legend of South St. Paul. It’s one of the few things that’s survived here.” he said.

Stormi Greener, Star Tribune

Booya contest bubbling up again

  • Article by: KEVIN GILES
  • Star Tribune
  • October 1, 2008 - 12:36 AM

So belly up with your bowl, because those vats of steaming booya are coming again to South St. Paul.

Booya isn't a Halloween surprise, but a stew brimming with vegetables, spices and any assortment of meats including chicken, beef and oxtails. Just where that name originated is up for debate, but once the brew bubbles in South St. Paul, any explanation does the trick.

"There's no true story about it," said Walt Books, the boss of booya in the old stockyard city for a good 25 years. "I made up a lot of them."

The booya bash is no small undertaking, mind you. This is the World Champion Booya Cookoff, deserving of prestige. When it commences Saturday at noon on Southview Boulevard, an assortment of cooks will fuss over 30-gallon vats. Sometimes they dare to go even bigger, to 50 or 70 gallons, and they light the cooking fires a full day before feeding time. The party continues "until we get rid of booya," Books said.

Ask Books and he'll tell you why he's persisted in arranging the cookoff for the better part of 25 years.

"It's something that's so different," he said. "It's part of the legend of South St. Paul. It's one of the few things that survived here. Everything else gets torn down or burned down."

The cookoff is a place where families gather, Books said, drawing as many as 12,000 people in past years. Booya goes for $3 a bowl. Ingredients for each vat cost as much as $300. The blue ribbon winner gets $150; second place brings $100 and third place, $50. Winners get plaques, too.

Books ran a flower shop and ice cream parlor for years in South St. Paul. He's known for off-beat promotions to attract attention to South St. Paul, once one of the busiest livestock centers in the world. The city's last stockyard closed in the spring.

The booya cookoffs draw types such as the Twisted Sisters, who have won several championships, and other cooks who inflict character on their booya with pepper, wine, barley and other (often secret) ingredients.

Judging starts at 3 p.m. A new world champion will be named after that. What happens in South St. Paul hardly stays in South St. Paul, Books said, confident the city doesn't need to make excuses to claim a title of that lofty esteem.

Kevin Giles • 651-298-1554

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