Chicken Booyah for the Soul
Dateline: The Northwoods of Wisconsin
By Tracy L. Ziemer
Friday, June 23, 2006
are countless cultural riffs on chicken soup, from egg drop
to matzo ball. In northeastern Wisconsin, it's chicken booyah.
Travel to the Green Bay area in the summer, and you can't swing
a Brett Favre jersey without hitting a hot booyah kettle filled
with the beloved stewlike soup, a regional specialty for more
than 100 years.
More rustic than refined, booyah — a slow-cooked stew
of meat, veggies, and spices — is usually made in 25-
to 50-gallon batches (or more) over an open fire, making it
a staple at church festivals, county fairs, picnics, and my
own family reunion, for decades.
"It's a classic folk food in that it's labor-intensive
to prepare, so it brings a lot of people together," explains
Terese Allen, a food columnist in Madison, Wisconsin, and
author of Wisconsin's Hometown Flavors and Wisconsin
Food Festivals. "When you talk about booyah, it's
not just the food that you eat but it's the event you attend."
The exact origins of booyah are sketchy. It's widely believed
that the word "booyah" is derived from the French
word "bouillon," or possibly "bouillabaisse."
Some therefore think we owe thanks for the dish to the French-Belgian
Walloons who settled near Green Bay, while others insist it's
the Belgians (hence, booyah's nickname: "Belgian penicillin"),
or even early Polish or Czech communities. (SportsCenter's
Stuart "Boo-ya!" Scott, however, had nothing to
do with it.)
Allen theorizes that French fur traders probably got the
booyah ball rolling, making it with game and vegetables at
harvest time. But the area's melting pot of ethnic groups
has made it difficult to pinpoint who invented what's inside
the booyah pot.
Fortunately, booyah is open to interpretation. A foodstuff
that isn't finicky about how you spell it (booyah, booya,
bouya, boulyaw) is equally flexible about what you use to
make it. The three hallmarks of traditional chicken booyah
are: chicken, of course; large quantities of vegetables, such
as green beans, corn, carrots, celery, potatoes, onions, peas,
cabbage; and cooking it outside, usually for a full day. (Booyah
also is made in Minnesota and parts of Michigan, where they
sometimes use beef, pork, or even fish.) Traditionally cooked
over a wood fire, booyah nowadays is often made in 60-gallon
propane kettles. A canoe paddle comes in handy for stirring.
If you're traveling through northeastern Wisconsin this summer
or early fall, stop at a festival or the Green Bay Farmer's
Market (Saturday mornings, June–October; 920-448-3005)
for a taste. Just be sure to eat it like a local: always
with oyster crackers, and sometimes with a side of bratwurst.
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