Certain American dishes are best made for a crowd. Take, for instance, Brunswick stew and booya. They’re brewed most often in the fall, with a traditional base built on whatever a hunter brings home. At one time–and not too long ago–baby squirrels were a main ingredient. The reason for this was there were so many squirrels around that they might as well just jump into the pot. A good squirrel hunter will tell you the most important and pleasurable aspect of shooting squirrels is the chance to sit still, your back against a comfortable tree in a quiet forest, just listening to the woodsy noises around you.
That all sounded pretty good to me and since one of my firm principles when I’m told an old recipe is to stick to the original concept as much as I can, I looked around for a hunter. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any locals hunters living within a thousand-mile radius of Brooklyn who expressed interest in allowing a completely gun-scared, antsy-pants novice to tag along with them, let alone watch them skin enough of their catch to make a decent amount for either dish. So, instead, I drove around Virginia and Minnesota to find Brunswick stew and booya cooks. Since fall is also prime food contest and fundraising season, I met a lot of them, all of whom, I was happy to say, stuck to the modern recipe in which chicken or beef replaced squirrels.
The recipes, in structure and content, are strikingly similar, their differences coming down to just a few points:
Location: If you’re eating Brunswick stew, chances are you’re points south, starting in Virginia and moving along to Georgia; booya marks the Midwest, especially around Minnesota.
Order: How the ingredients are added to the pot.
The cook: Who inevitably slips in his or her own regional-influenced flavors.
Both recipes are among America’s oldest recipes, making them a fine choice for Throwback Thursday. I thought about doing both dishes, but decided on booya in memory of a vibrant fundraiser held each year in the parking lot of Grace Lutheran Church, in the Highland Park area of St. Paul, Minnesota. It’s been postponed, of course, and I imagine the various booya groups who compete for first place are very very cranky. Stalwarts are the Vietnam Veterans of America, Chapter 639, the Twisted Sisters & Co, the local police department and the D&B boys. None of them would share their recipes. A Marine vet started telling me the strict order of adding their spices but the woman stirring their pot with a huge wooden paddle turned toward us and yelled, “shut the fuck up,” upon which the blabber sat down in a lawn chair and opened a can of beer while I scurried off to try my luck at the Twisted Sisters’ pot. They would only let on that their secret ingredients were gallons of Merlot and oxtails. As for the D&B boys, their wide wall of flannelled-shirt backs stopped me from even trying. I retreated to join the long line at the serving table and wait for the booyas to be ready.
The hed photo is from a 1936 booya supper. The one below is of a 1940 Brunswick stew dinner held in Caswell County, North Carolina, for the October tobacco auction.
Booya for at least 16 people
30 pounds oxtails or veal
10 pounds beef soup bones
4 fat hens
Water to cover
1 bushel tomatoes, peeled, or 2 gallon of canned pureed tomatoes
4 or 5 large onions, peeled and chopped
2 pounds celery, chopped
5 or more pounds of potatoes, peeled and cut
2 bunches rutabagas, peeled and chopped
6 heads of cabbage, cored and chopped
4 (24-ounce) cans of corn, drained
2 (12-ounce) cans of peas
2 pounds dry navy beans, soaked for 12 hours
1 pound fresh strong beans, removed strings and chopped
2 tablespoons allspice (more or less depending on personal taste)
2 tablespoons paprika
salt and pepper to taste.
Place all the meat in a very large soup pot or, if you have it, booya kettle. Pour in enough water to cover the meat. bring to a boil then lower it to a rolling simmer, stirring occasionally. Cook the meat until it is done.
Add the vegetables, one at a time and stir until thoroughly mixed before adding the next vegetables. Add more hot water if necessary to keep all the ingredients covered.
Now add the seasoning. Taste and add more if necessary. Continue to cook until you think it’s done–no more than 12 hours. Booya is always better the next day.
Photo credit: Marion Post Wolcott, Brunswick stew dinner prepared by the Parent Teachers Association of Prospect Hill to raise money for a new school gymnasium, Caswell County, North Carolina, October 1940.