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Yesterday, I was flipping through my (very heavy) copy of The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, and I found…

…wait for it…
…wait for it…

an entry on BOOYAH! What is booyah? I’m glad you asked.

BOOYAH is a thick mixed stew that demonstrates how American ethnic food can include dishes that would be completely alien in recipe or usage to past generations. Groups of Belgian American Walloons settled around Door County (Green Bay), Wisconsin, in the 1850s, bringing with them a dish of clear bouillon served with rice. The hen of that had been boiled to obtain the bouillon made another meal the next day. Sometime in the 1930s, men took over the dish and turned it into a thick soup full of boned chicken meat and vegetables (and often served with saltines) at the annual Belgian American kermis harvest festival. The pots became larger, the men used a canoe paddle to stir the soup, and “booyah” became the name of the event as well as the central dish.

By the 1980s, booyah was served at church fund-raisers, at a midsummer ethnic festival for visitors, and on Green Bay Packer football weekends. Secret recipes  and “booyah kings” have been added to make booyah male-bonding ritual like those surrounding barbecue, chili con carne, burgoo, and Brunswick stew – the latter two soup-stews being highly similar to booyah.

It is possible that booyah has features of other Belgian soups, such as hochepot. It often happens that American ethnic dishes begin to accumulate features of several old-country dishes. It also may be that booyah is not descended from Belgian bouillon at all. Around Saint Cloud, Minnesota, Polish Americans believe that “bouja” is an old Polish soup, and men make it as much as Belgian Americans do in Door County, Wisconsin, but flavored with pickling spices. An early published recipe (1940) describes “boolyaw” as a French Canadian dish from the hunting camps of Michigan.  A more recent Wisconsin cookbook called it an old German recipe. The dish has gone from a thin soup made by women at home to a thick stew made by men for communal events. An Italian American might mistake booyah for minestrone, yet Belgian Americans in Wisconsin believe it is named for Godfrey of Bouillon, a leader of the First Crusade. The fruit tarts served for desert at booyah feasts are made by women as much as they were in Eastern Belgium in the early nineteenth century.

Mark H. Zanger, author of The American History Cookbook

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