You Never Forget the First Time You Have Booya or Brunswick Stew

The communities that uphold traditional social stews would argue that your local summer chili cookout has nothing on a 70-gallon vat of Brunswick stew made with snapping turtle.

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Jun 12 2015, 3:15pm

Photo via Flickr user tvnewsbadge

For Bob McKenzie, making Booya is a 26-hour process that requires five jumbo-sized "witch's kettles," a team of ten, and five canoe-paddles. Booya, sometimes alternatively spelled with an 'h' at the end, is a stew made of beef, chicken, vegetables, and allspice—and it's a longstanding tradition in Minneapolis-St. Paul. The city even has municipal stew pots.

Booya has its roots as a social stew; meaning that the process of making it is shared among members of a community, for either social reasons or, in times of hardship, to stretch ingredients farther than they would have gone on their own. Each person who will be eating the stew contributes an ingredient and helps with meal preparation. However, social stews like Booya aren't unique to Minnesota—versions can be found scattered throughout the country, notably Burgoo and Brunswick stew; yet nowadays, many of the stews serve a purpose that goes past satiating communitywide hunger.

Photo via Flickr user tvnewsbadge

Photo via Flickr user tvnewsbadge
Photo via Flickr user Tess Shebaylo Photo via Flickr user Tess Shebaylo

"For us, it's a huge fundraiser," McKenzie said. He is part of the oldest Catholic men's club in Minneapolis, and the annual Booya (the word is also used to describe the event) has taken place for nearly 70 years. "All the money we get is used to take care our local Catholic church," he said.

The stew sells for $4 a bowl or $36 a gallon. "And we sell out every year. I've seen people with five-gallon buckets coming up," McKenzie said. Based on the amount of work that goes into making it, one can see why. The Booya-making process starts at 9 AM on a Saturday morning, when beef bones are put in a pot to boil. Then come cow's feet: "We used to use oxtail, before it became so expensive," McKenzie said. In another pot, each of which eventually hold 70 gallons of stew, 140 pounds of chicken quarters are cooked.

By 8 PM, a portion of the ten-person crew comes out to debone the chicken. This is a four-hour process. By midnight, the vegetables are added. This includes 300 pounds of potatoes, 200 pounds of carrots, cabbage, celery, and onions. Five members of the crew are then armed with what McKenzie can only describe as "canoe paddles." "They are really nice—don't splinter. If you were buying them new, they would cost around $200, but thankfully we have a few lying around," he told me.

Five men stir with the paddles while the other five wait, trading off after ten-minute shifts. "It has to be stirred pretty much constantly so the cabbage doesn't stick to the side of the pot and burn," McKenzie explained. After four more hours, canned vegetables are added to the mix. At 8 AM Sunday morning, tasting begins—before finally, at 11 AM, the sale begins. Typically, they sell out within a few hours.

"We have people who are a part of this process whose dads were involved and their dads were involved," McKenzie said. "It's very much a family tradition."

Farther south, former Top Chef contestant and restaurateur Kevin Gillespie distinctly remembers the first time he had Brunswick stew. For him, it was part of a family tradition as well.

It was at Fresh Air Bar-B-Que, a rustic joint in North Georgia with log support beams and a sawdust floor. "All they do is chopped barbecue and Brunswick stew," Gillespie said. "We've been going there since I was probably ten."

The origin of the stew is uncertain, causing a heated debate, not only regarding the proper ownership of the dish but also about what ingredients go into an "authentic" version. Both Brunswick County, Virginia, and Brunswick, Georgia, both claim that to be its originating point.

Photo courtesy of Kevin Gillespie

Chef Kevin Gillespie. Photo courtesy of Kevin Gillespie.

In Georgia, according to Gillespie, there is an ongoing argument about proper additives: in Northern Georgia, people use meat, corn, and tomatoes, but in Southern Georgia they use other ingredients like potatoes, baby lima beans, or peas.

While it is not as traditional as the others, the creation of Brunswick stew has turned into a community event or fundraiser for many Southern towns. There are even chatrooms and forums dedicated to where the stew will be served. For example, a recent exchange on the "BBQ Brethren" message board went something like this:

Beerguy: As some of you know, Brauma (another user) and his church elders have been making Brunswick stew as a church fundraiser for the last 30 yrs. or so. Brauma is now the chief cook, as the elders are in there [sic] late 70s and early 80s. I've been helping out for at least 12 years off and on, and this has gotten bigger and better every year.

This year they had seven cast iron pots, that averaged 18 gals. apiece, fueled only by wood and stirred with maple "oars" that Brauma's dad made 30 years ago. To me, it's like stepping back in time to a Norman Rockwell scene, a piece of Americana, as a rural church comes together with fellowship and fun.

Professor Salt: Nice looking function. Can't find a church like that around my parts.

Monty: What's "Brunswick stew"? No offense meant, I'm truly ignorant of it... being from Texas gives me an excuse for being like I am, haha.

Beerguy: Here's my recipe for 4 pots averaging 20 gal each. You'll have to do the math. Recipe for 4 pots: 12 gal. butterbeans, 12 gal. corn. 12 gal. tomatoes (must be crushed tomatoes), 60 lbs. potatoes, 30 lbs. onions, 45 lbs. beef, 50 lbs. chicken, 4 turkey breasts, One stick of margarine in each pot. One cup of sugar in each pot.

Photo via Flickr user Joe Loong

Brunswick stew. Photo via Flickr user Joe Loong.

"My family used to make it with squirrel, snapping turtle, and whole hog scraps," Gillespie said. Now through his catering company, Terminus City, he makes it using different cuts of meat: pork trimmings, chicken, and beef. "Because of the style I do, I can't make it unless I barbecue the meat."

He continued: "At least one of the meats needs to spend time in the pit, or it is always a little flat."

Jordan Delewis, chef at Against The Grain Brewery in Louisville, says that the same goes for his burgoo, a social stew popular in Kentucky. The base of his burgoo is pork stock that's been rolling for 48 hours. "It's really rich and heavy, coming from our smoked pork butts and bones," Delewis said. Tomatoes, lima beans, and corn are then added to the stock and meat.

He also vividly remembers his first time having burgoo. Age: 17. Location: Mark's Feed Store, a BBQ chain in Louisville. Reaction: Curious enough about the dish to do some research, which led to him roadtripping two hours to Owensboro, Kentucky, for their annual barbecue and burgoo festival. Like booya, burgoo has a tradition of being prepared communally, and like brunswick stew, its preparation and sale has developed into a form of community fundraising. Yet, like Gillespie, Delewis is among a wave of chefs who are returning to regional flavors in their own cooking.

"Tasting burgoo changed my whole thought process about what goes into a stew," Delewis said, reflecting on the time, preparation, and the layering of flavors involved in creating burgoo. Initially, the dish took a while to catch on at his restaurant, but once people first tasted the Kentucky classic, Delewis said "it caught on like wildfire."

A booya pot. Photo courtesy of the Minneapolis/St. Paul Conventions and Visitor's Bureau.

A booya pot. Photo courtesy of the Minneapolis/St. Paul Conventions and Visitor's Bureau.

He continued: "I had a girl just come in—keeping in mind it's like 96 degrees right now—and order up a bowl of burgoo. If that doesn't say how much it's caught on, I don't know what will.