Batches of bouja blend tradition, stir up memories

“Just bring your container and your Sunday meal is ready,” advised a long-ago advertisement for bouja in The Visitor.

It’s still true. This delicious, hearty, comfort food — a thick meat-and-vegetables soup with roots in the Midwest — has a long-standing tradition in the St. Cloud Diocese.

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Fred Dehler helps distribute containers of bouja from Holy Spirit’s bouja kitchen Oct. 2. (Dianne Towalski / The Visitor)

As part of its yearlong centennial events, St. Joseph Parish in Waite Park is creating 100 gallons from one of its 1930 recipes, provided by parishioner Gebhard Feld, who was on one of the five original bouja crews at the parish.

“We’ll be selling our bouja in half-gallon containers at the church on Sunday [Oct. 9],” said Steve Gilloleyi, who heads the centennial committee with Judy Brannan. “We want to bring back the memories and best traditions of our church from the last 100 years.

“The parish started making and selling bouja in 1930 to purchase a new furnace for the church,” Gilloleyi added. “Back then, children collected vegetables from neighborhood gardens, and on Saturdays the crews would clean the chickens and cook them with the beef and pork. On Sundays they would cook it for seven hours — from 4 to 11 a.m.”

In 1993 due to changes in health codes, St. Joseph’s stopped making the “half soup-half stew,” as one of its 1930 advertisements aptly described it. This is the first time since then that the parish will create their scrumptious concoction.

And, that brings one more of the diocese’s time-honored traditions into the mix — parishes helping each other out.

Parishioners of Holy Spirit in St. Cloud have been making this slow-cooked, delectable dish several times a season for the last 50 years or so. Their “bouja shack,” with six steam-jacketed kettles, is equipped to prepare up to 400 gallons of bouja when they are in full swing. They are generously sharing their cooking facilities and expertise with St. Joseph’s for this Sunday’s centennial event.

The Polish Echos in Little Falls are also cooking up a batch of bouja at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish Oct. 9.

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Dennis Seiberlich uses a wooden canoe paddle to stir the bouja in Holy Spirit’s bouja kitchen in St. Cloud Oct. 2. (Dianne Towalski / The Visitor)

“It’s a once-a-year tradition for our group,” Phinee Zak, who started the club more than 10 years ago, said. “It’s always on the second Sunday of October when people are closing up their gardens. That’s why bouja was started — people were using up their garden surplus.”

Kathy Millett, treasurer of the group, heads up the culinary operation. It’s the fifth year the organization has carried on the tasty tradition, but Millett’s bouja background stretches to her childhood where she enjoyed it at churches in St. Paul. She’s helped her family make it for the last 35 years.

“Our Polish ancestors made it for years,” Millett recalled. “Last year we made nine roasters full. Almost everyone in the club helps — about 12 to 15 people. It’s a fun, busy weekend.

“We have three kettles — the largest can hold 60 quarts,” Millett added. “We make it on the church stove and have a long-handled utensil made by my brother to stir it. We cook the meats and bones for broth, which makes it thick and flavorful. Many of the vegetables are donated and so the mixture is a little different each year based on the veggie assortment. We serve it as a meal with a variety of breads and apple crisp, baked from donated apples, for dessert. Or some people take it out.”

Cathedral creates custom

Holy Spirit’s bouja-making tradition started at St. Mary’s Cathedral in St. Cloud but moved to their parish about 50 years ago, said Urban Torborg, who has been spearheading the program with Jim Gasperlin for the last nine years. During that time the group has raised $170,000 for the parish’s general fund. The former crew worked together for about 30 years and brought in around $500,000.

bouja-ad1Holy Spirit parishioner Harry Rothstein, who has been one of the parish’s bouja cooks for 28 years, sold Johnny Bread baked at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville to complement the 350 gallons of bouja sold at the parish Oct. 2. He fondly remembers working with previous individuals, including Henry Cash, Don Sauer and Tony Ament, who obtained the kettles from the local reformatory and orchestrated the construction of the parish “bouja shack” in 1970.

During the 2016-17 season, Holy Spirit teams will prepare the enticing blend 14 times.

They order the ingredients from a food distributor due to the hefty amounts needed for the large quantities they prepare. Those deliveries are made on Thursdays.

“We start on Fridays with five people — they start chopping up the cabbage and celery,” Torborg explained. “On Saturdays about 13 to 15 people prepare the potatoes, and peel the carrots by hand. Five men come on Sundays — starting about 3 or 3:30 a.m. They cook the meat in two of the kettles and the broth is added to the 90-gallon soup kettles.

Once the meat is cooked, it is ground up. By 7 a.m. the soup is cooking, and by 9, we’re serving.

“It takes an additional 12 people to help to serve it,” he continued. “People drop off buckets with their names on them on Saturday or Sunday, starting at 5 a.m., and pay in advance. Their containers are filled by 9 or 9:30 and placed on tables outside for pick up.”

Those who attend the St. Stephen Parish Festival in St. Stephen, held annually on Labor Day, have the opportunity to sample the Slovenian version of bouja prepared by Kim Schuneman-Warner and her cousin Julie Schuneman, who co-chair the bouja booth. Schuneman’s sister, Mary Knettel, started making her grandmother’s recipe for the festival 13 years ago but died a few years later. The cousins have kept the tradition going in her memory.

“My family has made it for years,” Schuneman-Warner said. “It is our grandma Margaret Schuneman’s recipe and probably well over 100 years old. My cousins and I have been eating this all our lives. I’ve helped my parents make it and helped my grandma make it when I was a kid.”

Family members or other parishioners donate all the ingredients for the yummy stew. About six family members help with its preparation.

“We start on Saturday — two days before the festival,” Schuneman-Warner said. “We wrap the chickens in cheesecloth. The veggies are cut up the day before. We chop everything by hand. It’s a very hearty soup — definitely comfort food.”

When asked about bouja’s popularity in this area, the varied answers sum up the story of this savory soup: “It’s so much work to make,” Schuneman-Warner explained. “And, people don’t get it on a regular basis so when they do it’s really a treat.”

“It’s a meal in a bowl,” Torborg replied. “It’s convenient, cheap and good.”

“Polish and German people made it in their families for so many years and it was popular with farmers in the area,” Millett suggested.

“It’s tradition,” Gilloleyi said.

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