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Rice woman treats friends and family with a hearty helping of this traditional vegetable stew

Friends and family come together each year for the bouja, served in the Wollak’s garage. Contributed photo

Friends and family come together each year for the bouja, served in the Wollak’s garage. Contributed photo

“I love people, and I love to entertain.” These are the words of Kathleen Wollak, known around Rice, where she and husband, Allan, live and farm, for making bouja and hosting bouja feasts for over a hundred friends and family members each autumn.

When cars began pulling into their driveway on a drizzly Saturday evening in late September, and the Wollak’s shed filled with hungry neighbors, grandkids, aunts, and friends, Wollak grabbed her ladle and took her place at the bouja pot, where she could greet everyone.

“My favorite part is to serve,” said Wollak. “I always ask each person how they like their bouja. Thick or thin? If they like it thick, I dip down into the pot and scoop up loads of veggies and meat. If they like more broth, I take it from the top.”

What is bouja? For those unfamiliar with the dish, Wollak describes it as a thick vegetable stew. Her recipe includes potatoes, onions, carrots, green beans, celery, tomatoes, and chicken, pork and beef. The stew is a specialty of some areas of the Upper Midwest. Wollak knows a lot of people, including some newcomer neighbors, who have never heard of it before. “A lot of people make bouja in the fall,” she explained, “because they’re cleaning out their gardens, using up the last of their tomatoes and getting rid of their old hens. It’s a good way to use everything up.”

Kathleen Wollak of Rice stirs this year’s batch of bouja, a stew she creates for family and friends each year. Contributed photo

Kathleen Wollak of Rice stirs this year’s batch of bouja, a stew she creates for family and friends each year. Contributed photo

Wollak grew up on a farm near Sauk Rapids, and, as one of 11 children, recalled memories of cooking bouja outdoors in a large, black cauldron over an open fire. Today, she and Allan cook their bouja in a shed, using a 40-gallon jambalaya pot, a burner, a wooden paddle stirrer, and ladle that Wollak purchased six years ago with garage sale proceeds. She makes 38 gallons of bouja for their annual gathering.

“I take notes every year,” she said. Her notes include the amounts of ingredients used and how many gallons were made, the weather, the number of people attending, the amount of leftovers, and even who were the last guests to leave! “I’ve figured a gallon will feed eight people. That’s two cups a person. This year, we served 120 people and we had 20 gallons of bouja left over. After saving some for ourselves, we put the extra into containers for people to take home.”

Wollak prepares for the event weeks beforehand by chopping up and freezing garden vegetables. Her sister helps her cook the chickens and pick meat off the bones so it can be ground up coarsely. “That is what makes bouja so thick,” she stressed. “The ground-up meat.”

Wollak uses 33-35 pounds of meat in her recipe. Three-quarters is chicken, and the rest is beef and pork. In the days before the recent bouja party, she chopped more vegetables and peeled 55 pounds of potatoes. “It took me one hour and 45 minutes to peel them. On Saturday morning, my family helped, but all we had to do was dice them.”

The bouja recipe also calls for 22 pounds of carrots, four pounds of celery, four and a half pounds of cabbage, seven pounds of onions, six pounds of green beans and one and three-quarters gallons of tomatoes. “There are no secret ingredients, or special seasonings,” she said. “Just salt, pepper and TLC.” She does add quick barley to thicken the broth if it’s too thin.

Wollak’s grandchildren help stir bouja at this year’s feed. Contributed photo

Wollak’s grandchildren help stir bouja at this year’s feed. Contributed photo

Making bouja for a hundred family members and friends is a big undertaking and not a task for just anyone. But, it’s become a labor of love for this family. “My husband and son agree that doing the bouja means the shop gets a good cleaning,” said Wollak. “Saturday morning, I was up by 6 a.m., and the fire was lit at 6:30. The broth is made first, and after it boils for an hour, the vegetables are added. Except for the potatoes. They’re added later so they don’t break apart. By 11:30, everything is in and the bouja simmers until 4:30, when the burner is shut off.” The bouja has to be stirred every 15 minutes throughout the day, she emphasized. Wollak has six young grandchildren who are taking more interest in the process and are happy to take turns helping with the stirring.

Wollak’s family eats at 5 p.m., before everyone else arrives, so they can celebrate their granddaughter’s birthday. Crackers and freshly baked bread are served with the bouja and everyone brings a dish. Mostly sweets. “I also had ham, in case somebody didn’t like bouja,” said Wollak, “and some people have brought honey, peanut butter and jelly to go with the fresh bread.”

This year’s bouja flyer invited people to the bouja feast as well as the celebration of the Wollak’s 40th wedding anniversary.

“Some people commented that we shouldn’t be doing all this work because it’s our anniversary,” Wollak said, “but I work all week, and I like seeing everyone have a good time.” The kids play, and older folks visit. There’s no other agenda. This year’s gathering was a success if it can be judged on what time the last guests went home. One in the morning.

By the time all the clean-up was finished late Sunday, Wollak was not ready to commit to hosting another bouja feast next year. It’s just too soon!

She shared her recipe for three gallons of bouja for cooks who want a hot, hearty meal, but not for 100 guests. It can be made in an electric roaster.

Bouja (3 gallons)

2 ½ pounds chicken, cooked and ground

½ pound pork, cooked and ground, but can use all chicken

½ pound beef, cooked and ground, but can use all chicken

5 pounds potatoes, diced

2 pounds carrots, diced

1 ½ pounds green beans, cut small

½ pound onions, ground

2 cups tomatoes, quartered

1/3 pound cabbage, chopped small

1/3 pound celery, chopped fine

¼ cup quick barley

Salt and pepper, to taste

Start with one gallon of chicken broth and add to it to get the thickness you want.

Bouja at Church of the Holy Spirit

For those looking to try bouja in a public place, there is an opportunity in the area. Volunteers at Church of the Holy Spirit in St. Cloud have been making bouja since the 1950’s. They sell hundreds of gallons of the popular stew during their fall fundraiser. Customers order the bouja early Saturday morning when volunteers are beginning the task of chopping up vegetables at the Bouja Shack, at 1615 11th Ave. So., St. Cloud. Sunday mornings at 9 a.m., they return, pails in hand, and wait for their order. In October, bouja was sold on three weekends, partly to accommodate deer hunters who want a quick meal. It will be sold again Nov. 13 and Dec. 4 and 18. For more information, contact the church at 320-251-3764.

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