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Chicken Booyah for the Soul

Dateline: The Northwoods of Wisconsin

By Tracy L. Ziemer
Friday, June 23, 2006

the daily dishThere 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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