Light the fire at sunrise; it’s ready at sundown. But only on the perfect autumn days somewhere near Green Bay, Wisconsin, as the crisp chill startles you awake when you walk outside. When the sun isn’t up yet, but the horizon is the pale blue of promise, trees stand as black silhouettes against the sky – this is when you start the fire in the barrel. Then let it cook all day, enjoy it at sundown. But the process actually begins earlier.
The previous night, over cold beers and good conversation, we chopped carrots, peeled potatoes. A large pressure cooker was already going on the stove-top when I arrived. Inside, chicken bones and skin boiling. The butcher had kindly skinned and de-boned the thirty pounds of whole chickens, making the prep a bit easier, but the flavors had to be captured. Peter insisted the onions be finely diced, so they would melt away in the cooking process. I happily complied, never shed a tear. When the carrots, potatoes, celery, and ever-so-finely-diced onion were chopped, bagged, ready for tomorrow, we split a final beer. But the process really began earlier.
Peter owns the specially prepared barrel needed to make an authentic booyah. They had to travel across the state to find the right stainless steel wash machine inserts which, when welded into a closed cooking pot, fit perfectly atop the 55 gallon drum. You can find a recipe, you can study the history, but in the end, a key part of the process in how you cook it, not just what goes in. Booyah is cooked outside, over an open flame, lit at sunrise. How much does the process add to the flavor? Not sure. But like a clam bake on a beach in the Cape or a luau under the warm Hawaiian skies, the cooking process is part of the tradition, part of what makes this authentic. And what you want here is authentic. This isn’t about innovation. This isn’t about your “take on it”. This isn’t about creativity. This is about tradition. This is about who knows the oldest recipe, the first use of the term, the most authentic version. This is where a dish transcends any individual participation, and you become immersed in a tradition. So obviously, the process begins much earlier.
September 1852, two families from the Wallonia region of Belgium decide to immigrate to the United States. Perhaps inspired by their story, a significant group of families decide to follow the next May. As they travel, they decide to accompany a group of Dutch families heading to Wisconsin. So after an ocean voyage and train rides across this young nation, they chose not to settle in the growing cities of Chicago or Milwaukee. They likely traveled north by stagecoach, along Lake Michigan’s western shore. As the sun rose upon the waters of that great lake, they would have seen rolling fields and forests covered in the mists of a spring dawn, and geese flying north in a silent, V formation. They settled northeast of modern-day Green Bay, where the forests of the peninsula began, and formed a new Belgian colony. It is estimated between 5,000 and 7,500 Walloon-speaking Belgians settled in the three-county area around Green Bay from 1852 to 1856.
These were farmers, loggers, miners; people working with their hands, carving out a new life, in a raw, rugged land. The Peshtigo Fire of 1871 wiped out much of the logging, but cleared land for farms to quilt the landscape. These farmers would gather together for camaraderie, to share stories, to remember their traditions. In fall, they would gather over a harvest stew, not unlike a traditional chicken bouillon, with carrots, celery, onions, whole chickens over an open fire. Potatoes and corn, staples of the early American farm, were added. Along the way, a more unlikely ingredient, oxtail finds it way into the stew. A farmer looking for a richer texture, additional flavor, or was it simply leftover from another family dinner? The reason lost to time, but a tradition was born. And the name? There is a pretty common explanation (and a fair amount of discussion about who has the “most authentic” recipe), but for me it simply comes down to pronouncing bouillon in a thick French accent and someone spelling it like it sounds.
A booyah is not a recipe, but tradition. It is a process of making a harvest stew, but as much about the process as the stew. This is about fall and friends. A chill in the air. A fire lit at sunrise. So when friends start to gather on the patio around noon, the fire is glowing embers, and the pot is steaming. Peter wants to keep it to a low simmer, a rapid boil will dry out the chicken. After hours of cooking the oxtails are fished out and broken down, most of the bones removed, their rich flavors suffused through the stew. We talk. We drink beer. I try Duvel for the first time, a strong blond ale from Belgium. A friend of Peter’s at Milwaukee Brewing Company brews a Belgian-style saisson, named for Peter’s stew. We drink some of that too. The kids are running around the neighborhood, dressed up for Halloween. The golden glow reserved for late autumn shines through the rustling leaves. Another beer. More friends arrive. The sun settles down beyond the horizon – booyah is ready.
The stew is full and rich, in flavor and in mouth-feel. If you enjoy the difference between a home-made chicken soup and a store bought variety, the difference is likely the rich, fatty mouth-feel from the skin and bones of the chicken. We’re going several steps beyond. The broth created from the skins and bones from the pressure cooker have been added. The oxtail creates a lush richness to the stew. The onions have melted away. I’m not sure I can taste the smoke of the fire, but after spending the last few hours huddled around the barrel for conversation, I smell of smoke, and it adds something to every taste. Wash it down with another beer. These are good times. These are good friends. This is good food. A Belgian beauty – booyah.
Light the fire at sunrise; it’s ready at sundown.