For more than 30 years, South St. Paul has pegged itself the booya capital of the world, an honor owed to a grueling but delicious fall competition that happens annually the first Saturday in October.
“Nobody can say it isn’t [the capital], so it is,” said Walt Books, the event’s longtime organizer.
Booya — a meaty stew of uncertain origin that requires fresh oxtail — has “put us on the map,” said Beth Baumann, mayor of South St. Paul.
The brain behind the booya has always been Books, a local who once owned a flower shop, ran a rodeo, and sponsored a contest to see whose yard could grow the most dandelions — all in South St. Paul.
“The first year, it was a smashing success,” Books said. “Now, of course, it’s a tradition.”
But this year, Books said, was likely his last organizing the cook-off, which occurs as part of the larger “On the Road Again” event on Southview Avenue each year. This year, the event drew about 11,000 people.
At 85, his health is waning, Books said, and he’s eager to pass the ladle to someone else.
That person is Steve Mankowski, who has helped with the booya — a term that also refers to the event itself — for 28 years.
“If he wants to give it up, I will be there,” Mankowski said. “I’d be a shy little businessman if it wasn’t for him.”
Nearly everyone in town knows Books, who wears a cowboy hat and has strong opinions, both positive and negative, about the city.
“Walt is Walt,” said Tom Buchan, part of the Croatian Hall booya team. “We have differences when it comes to booya, but he puts on a good show.”
Mankowski already does much of the work organizing the competition, which costs $8,000 to $9,000 to run, including $2,000 for insurance. Competitors pay $300 to enter, and there are cash prizes for the top three concoctions.
Seven groups, each with their own tent, competed for the “best booya” designation, simmering several kinds of meat, vegetables and spices in a massive vat for at least 12 hours before selling it to the crowds.
This year, Bethesda Church placed first, the Booya Crew was second and the Croatian Hall took third. The fire and police departments were judges.
Opinions vary on what makes the best booya. Some say it requires a cast-iron pot because it holds the heat and brings out the flavor, while others use an aluminum one.
Pots are 30 to 55 gallons, and some booya vendors run out by early afternoon after selling more than 100 gallons.
Other hotly debated topics include whether certain ingredients should be used, especially oxtail. Many cooks said they use their own family’s special — and secret — recipe.
“It comes down to the ingredients and the spices,” said Gregg Boehmer of the Booya Crew, a six-time winner.
Booya is short for bouillabaisse and was brought to Minnesota by French fur traders, Books insisted, who threw whatever meat they had into it, from duck to venison. Later, churches, VFWs and other groups started making it for fundraisers.
But Baumann said booya is eastern European, and the competition is a nod to all the eastern European immigrants who came to work in South St. Paul’s stockyards 100 years ago.
The event “takes South St. Paul back to its heritage,” Baumann said.
Roberta Engel said she dislikes oxtail and won’t eat booya “because I don’t know what’s in it.” But she attends the event each year anyway.
“This is a very strong community,” Engel said. “Everybody knows everybody — that’s the best part about it.”
What else does a newcomer need to know about booya?
“That it will go on forever,” Books said.