Booyah: The Ultimate Stew for Feeding a Crowd

At The Booyah Shed, this northeast Wisconsin specialty is measured in gallons—3,000 of them, to be precise, each year.
Booyah: The Ultimate Stew for Feeding a Crowd
Booyah, a hearty, long-simmered stew, has become a staple in northeastern Wisconsin. (AS Foodstudio/Shutterstock)
11/2/2023
Updated:
11/2/2023
0:00
Booyah! It sounds like (and sometimes is) an enthusiastic cry of triumph, but in parts of Wisconsin, it’s often a barrelful of delicious. One might be forgiven for calling it a soup—maybe once—but this hearty bowl lies somewhere between soup and stew, and any fan will simply tell you, it’s booyah. Common at firefighters’ and church fundraiser picnics, it’s a cultural holdover beloved by residents in the northeastern region of Wisconsin, and batches are typically measured in gallons.

Origins

The word itself is curious, but the best theory out there is that it originates with immigrants from what is now one of three regions in modern Belgium: Wallonia. The Walloons, speaking the Walloon language, would eat bouillon, a broth made by stewing meat, and a word if repeated and phonetically and spelled by a non-Walloon would be in the ballpark of “booyah.”
(Speaking of ballparks, from 2019–2021, Green Bay’s Northwoods League baseball team was named Green Bay Booyah before rebranding as the Rockers.)

Consulting the Experts

If you don’t see any church picnics coming up, don’t worry; a few restaurants either have it on the menu or list it in the soup of the day rotation. But your best bet is a place that has it in its name: The Booyah Shed.
Before The Booyah Shed was a permanent restaurant, it was a shed on wheels. (Kevin Revolinski)
Before The Booyah Shed was a permanent restaurant, it was a shed on wheels. (Kevin Revolinski)

Practically in the shadow of Green Bay’s legendary Lambeau Field, the bright-red building draws a steady stream of hungry clients for a variety of things, including great burgers, pulled pork, and some locally sourced cheese curds—deep-fried, of course, and served with ranch on the side. But make no mistake, they made their name—literally and figuratively—with booyah.

I stop in on a weekday just after lunch in hopes of catching Dan Nitka in action. No one is at the counter, but I can hear activity in the kitchen. A rubber chicken hangs by the counter window. I give it a squeeze, and a woman pops up ready to take my order. On my request, she introduces me to Mr. Nitka.

Mr. Nitka is the booyah master, and before he and his team put down roots, they operated a shed on wheels. Towing the shed to special events with the booyah in back, Mr. Nitka remembers a driver following him nearly an hour down the highway—following the smell—and becoming the first customer that day.

Dan Nitka, owner of The Booyah Shed in Green Bay, Wis. (Kevin Revolinski)
Dan Nitka, owner of The Booyah Shed in Green Bay, Wis. (Kevin Revolinski)

Growing up, Mr. Nitka associated booyah with fundraisers at St. Mary of the Angel Church, where they’d make it in a big kettle next to an actual shed. Years later, he became the guy with the kettle. The people wanted booyah, and Mr. Nitka gave it to them: He built the large “mobile unit” and showed up at the local farmers market.

“They didn’t know what to do with us,” he said. “We pull in in a big trailer and it’s all tents. They had to move everybody, and they said, ‘Next week? Come early.’”

A batch of booyah is measured in gallons. In fact, Mr. Nitka’s record time for selling out was 90 gallons in 90 minutes.

In 2018, they opened the restaurant with counter service, a small dining room, and some outside seating conveniently close to the tailgating crowds of the Packers during football season.

Like Home Cooking

The recipe varied from household to household, but the broth was always made with bones, which give it flavor and texture.

“Whatever they had, they’d throw in the kettle,” said Mr. Nitka, whose booyah is based on chicken. He credits the basic recipe to his late brother Bob, but Mr. Nitka has put his own adjustments on it over the past two decades that he’s been making it. Other recipes may include some beef, pork, or oxtail to round out the flavor, but the Green Bay recipe, if there is such a thing, is typically chicken booyah.

Mr. Nitka lets it cook overnight in a 10-gallon cast-iron kettle on the stove, then he shows up in the morning to separate the bones and cook the vegetables, a process that can last up to 16 hours. They also have 18- and 90-gallon kettles that they can use over a wood fire outside when the need arises. A longer cooking time means deeper flavor.

“Normally, I prefer to serve it two to three days old,” said Mr. Nitka. But a batch never lasts more than a day. Annual production tops 3,000 gallons, made with 3 1/2 tons of chicken.

Mr. Nitka simmers his booyah overnight in a 10-gallon cast-iron kettle. (Kevin Revolinski)
Mr. Nitka simmers his booyah overnight in a 10-gallon cast-iron kettle. (Kevin Revolinski)

The Reason for Booyah

“It’s all about the people and the events. If it wasn’t for the people, we wouldn’t be here,” said Mr. Nitka.

About 90 percent of the menu items are made from scratch, even the ranch dressing—a Wisconsin staple—for the curds. The amazing gravy for the poutine is thickened booyah broth.

“People started asking us for stuff, and we’re like, ‘We can do that.’” Homemade ice cream, pies, and carrot cake. Fresh perch had come in that day, and so a fish sandwich appeared on the day’s specials.

Mr. Nitka’s mother makes the cherry pie with fruit from nearby cherry-rich Door County, and the extra cherry juice is set aside to make a sort of quick Bounce.

“Normally it takes five months to make [Bounce]. We do it in 5 minutes. Sugar, vodka, and you’re all set.”

A photo hangs on the wall: Customer of the Month.

“You come in enough, you make that frame.” And you get a free quart of booyah. A two-time winner has two sandwiches named after her and her own mug with her name on it.

A diner interrupts from across the room: “I was customer of the month once.”

The woman behind the counter chimes in: “I used to come in and eat all the time. And then they asked if I wanted a job.” Mr. Nitka just shrugs and smiles.

Booyah is served here by the cup or bowl, with optional oyster crackers on the side. Or you can order ahead by the gallon.

The Booyah Shed serves 3,000 gallons of its chicken booyah each year. (Kevin Revolinski)
The Booyah Shed serves 3,000 gallons of its chicken booyah each year. (Kevin Revolinski)

Booyah

Serves at least 12
  • 4 pounds whole chicken
  • 2 tablespoons salt
  • 1 tablespoon pepper
  • 8 large carrots, diced
  • 6 stalks celery, diced
  • 4 large potatoes, peeled and cubed
  • 3 cups chopped cabbage
  • 2 large yellow onions, chopped
  • 1 pound of peas (frozen is better than canned)
  • 2 cups corn
  • 1/2 rutabaga, chopped (optional)
  • 28-ounce can diced tomatoes (optional)
Use a stockpot or Dutch oven large enough to hold an entire chicken and cover it by an inch with water. Add the salt, cover, and bring to a gentle boil for 1 1/2 hours. Carefully remove the chicken from the resulting broth. Let it cool, debone it, and shred the meat. Return the meat to the broth and add all the vegetables. Check seasonings and adjust with salt and pepper accordingly.

Bring the booyah to a boil, then turn down the heat for at least a 2-hour simmer. Serve with oyster crackers. You can freeze leftovers in a non-glass container with space for the expanding ice.

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Kevin Revolinski is an avid traveler, craft beer enthusiast, and home-cooking fan. He is the author of 15 books, including “The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey” and his new collection of short stories, “Stealing Away.” He’s based in Madison, Wis., and his website is TheMadTraveler.com