HACKENSACK, Minn. -- In some Minnesota towns, booya is as sure of a sign of fall as changing leaves and cooler temperatures.
Last year, the annual booya in Hackensack, population 300, drew 200 people. But when COVID-19 hit, Hackensack's booya makers almost canceled this year's festival.
Instead, they decided to make it a drive-thru event — and still managed to draw a crowd last Friday, to the town north of Brainerd on the shores of Birch Lake.
Booya — sometimes spelled booyah — is a longstanding tradition in some Midwestern communities. It’s a thick, hearty stew made from a variety of meats, vegetables and spices. It’s made in vast quantities and cooked outside in a large kettle, sometimes for several days. It’s often served by churches, fire departments and veterans clubs at events called booyas — often as fundraisers for community organizations.
No two booya recipes are the same. They're closely guarded secrets, passed down from generation to generation. Often, they're as colorful as the stew itself — like the folk tale about stone soup, when everyone brings something to contribute to the pot.
No one seems to agree on exactly where booya came from, or how it got its name. Some say it originated in Belgium, or Hungary.
Chris Stage of Embarrass, Minn., one of Hackensack’s original booya masters, has another theory about its origins: He thinks it was invented when early Scandinavians got together to make a meal, and started throwing stuff in a pot.
"Actually, there's a funny story that there's people who like booya and others that don't,” Stage said. “They claim that the word came from the people that don't, on one side of the kettle going ‘boo.’ And the others are in line — and getting in line twice — and saying, ‘Yay.’ So it's ‘boo-yay.’”
Six or seven years ago, the group of friends — mostly retired postal workers with cabins in the Hackensack area — started making their booya at Union Congregational Church, as a fundraiser for a local nonprofit called Faith in Action for Cass County.
Since then, the event has grown.
"We’ve got people that come quite a few miles, a hundred miles to get this booya,” Bohanon said. “It used to be in the big cities, practically every VFW or American Legion would have a booya. But there's not many doing it anymore."
The Friday booya actually started the day before, when volunteers gathered in the church kitchen to start the mountains of prep work, chopping piles of vegetables, and cutting apart whole chickens and slabs of beef.
Volunteer Paula Abbott said Hackensack’s booya is thicker and tastier than what she remembers eating at church dinners growing up.
“It was not so much stuff,” Abbott said. “It was like broth, with maybe a dish rag thrown in.”
One of the other booya masters is Greg Poferl, a retired teacher and postal worker from St. Paul, who has been coming to a cabin near Hackensack since he was a child.
The booya recipe is top secret, Poferl said, but reads aloud from a dog-eared copy: Fifteen pounds each of beef and pork roast. Twenty pounds of chicken. Twelve pounds of oxtails. Vegetables ranging from parsnips to rutabaga, and a wide variety of spices.
Listed as optional: Snapping turtle, pheasant, grouse, snake and timberdoodles, a little brown bird. Poferl said they no longer include those extra delicacies.
Once everything is chopped up, it all goes into the 55-gallon pot the size of a large rain barrel, in which water is already boiling. Bohanon uses a canoe paddle — sanitized first — to stir the concoction.
The first few years, the crew cooked their booya over an open fire. These days, they use propane, so it's easier to control the temperature.
It simmers all day. Then they turn off the heat overnight, and start it up again the next morning. Someone actually sleeps in a camper next to the giant pot, just to make sure no one tampers with it.
By Friday afternoon, the booya is finally ready. Half an hour early, vehicles start lining up to pick up their stew.
Soon, the line of cars snakes all the way through the church parking lot and down the block. Volunteers hustle out of the church, carrying plastic bags loaded with takeout containers.
Bernie Miller of Hackensack was way back in line, to pick up her order. Booya, she said, is worth waiting for.
“I love booya,” she said. “I used to get it down in the cities when I lived there all the time. Every year, we got it because the fire department made it down there.”
More than soup
Booya is about more than just soup: It’s also about bringing the community together, said Theresa Eclov, executive director of Faith in Action for Cass County, the nonprofit organization the fundraiser supports. It connects volunteers with people who need a helping hand.
Cass County has an older population and a high poverty rate, Eclov said, and the pandemic has left many residents isolated.
"There are so many folks coming out to pick up booya that are just stuck at home,” she said. “They don't have a lot of ability to connect with people in the community. They get out once a week maybe to get groceries, and they really aren't encouraged to linger and talk to folks at the grocery store like they would want to do.”
So, offering people a chance to call and place their order, drive up and chat, and be given a hot meal and a friendly smile is important, Eclov said.
“It’s keeping the community alive,” she said.