BREITUNG TOWNSHIP- It was the end of an era as master booyah chef Nick Tekautz was honored for his 32 years, or perhaps it was 36 years, of chef service for the annual Vermilion Range Old Settlers …
BREITUNG TOWNSHIP- It was the end of an era as master booyah chef Nick Tekautz was honored for his 32 years, or perhaps it was 36 years, of chef service for the annual Vermilion Range Old Settlers Picnic on Saturday.
Tekautz has now trained in a younger generation of Tekautzes and Tormas to take over the supervision of the hundreds of gallons of meat-and-vegetable stew prepared each year.
Tekautz wasn’t quite sure how many years he had been in charge, after being asked by his father-in-law Herb Lamppa to take over for “just one year” when the committee needed a new head cook.
One year stretched into an almost permanent position. Tekautz had plenty of experience on the supply end, having worked at Zup’s Grocery, and ably oversaw the ordering of the hundreds of pounds of beef, pork, and vegetables needed to fill the antique iron cooking pots at the park on picnic weekend. Several dozen committee members and family friends always showed up the afternoon before the picnic to chop all the potatoes, celery, carrots, cabbage, and onions that are simmered along with the meat.
“It’s still the same recipe I was given a long ago,” Tekautz said, but he noted that the price of meat had really gone up this year, with the order for beef alone costing $1,000.
But with 217 picnic-goers registered at this year’s 107th annual reunion, memberships covered the cost of the meal, which is the only activity sponsored by Old Settlers, every year on the third Saturday in July.
Last year, the picnic was canceled due to the pandemic. Memberships have trended down in past years, especially compared to the 369 paid memberships at the 100th anniversary picnic in 2014, though average attendance has been around 250.
Committee members were unsure of how large attendance would be this year, due to the cancellation of the picnic last year and some family members still not able to travel. But their projections were good, and there was plenty of booyah for everyone who attended.
The picnic saw plenty of old and new faces, with a picture-perfect day at Breitung’s McKinley Park. Organizers noted that the crowd was trending a bit younger than in past years, which meant younger generations are continuing the family tradition and bringing their children along.
The booyah was ready right on time, at high noon, and the lines, as usual, moved quickly as picnic-goers waited for their turn to get their pot filled with the steaming hot stew.
Steve Solkela and his one-man accordion band proved a very popular entertainer, filling the spot held by Art Lehtonen and his accordion for many years. As a high-schooler, Solkela also put in a performance of the National Anthem at the 100th anniversary picnic, which he had attended with his relatives from the Korpi family of Soudan.
Pauly Housenga, of the Tower-Soudan Historical Society, asked for any information on the 143 miners who died working in the Soudan Mine. The state park is working on an exhibit commemorating the miners; any family members with stories, photos, or memorabilia they wish to share are asked to contact James Pointer at the Soudan Underground Mine State Park at 218-300-7000.
Master of Ceremonies Jennifer Fredrickson oversaw the short program. Past presidents Jodi Summit and Jennifer Fredrickson were presented with certificates by Old Settlers President Muriel Scott. Other officers include first vice-president Matt Tuchel, second vice-president Stephen Tekautz, and secretary/treasurer Kathy Hoppa. Board of directors members are Mike Korpi, Eric Norberg, Ari Picard, Kristine Jonas, and Gary Torma.
Old Settlers is open to anyone born or living on the Vermilion Iron Range, which stretches from Tower-Soudan to Ely. The picnic was originally sponsored by the Oliver Mining Company as a summer outing for its employees, and then turned into a community-wide celebration.
At one time, Old Settlers could boast over 1,000 people in attendance. Cars would line the road all the way up to the Soudan Community Store, and the township would run buses back and forth to ferry people to and from the park.
Preparing as much as 200 gallons of booyah takes some good old-fashioned elbow grease. The afternoon before the annual gathering, a couple of dozen volunteers gathered to peel and chop the hundreds of pounds of onions, carrots, potatoes, celery and cabbage that this year filled up four large cast iron booyah pots. Volunteers bring their own knives. This year professional chef Bryan Morcom stopped by and put all the amateur vegetable cutters to shame with his speedy chopping of carrots and potatoes.
The booyah recipe, passed down for 100 years, also includes almost 200 pounds of beef and pork, tomato puree, corn, green beans, peas, rice and pepper.
There is a specific order and time for adding each ingredient, said Nick Tekautz. The fires are lit at 6 p.m. and by 8 p.m. the water is just about boiling.
The cooking itself is down to a science, and Tekautz said he doesn’t even need to taste it along the way.
Something magic does happen as the booyah simmers overnight. Tekautz said the recipe is impossible to duplicate at home; he’s tried and failed several times.
The cast iron kettles, used only once a year for the Old Settlers picnic, may hold the key to the special flavor of the meat and vegetable soup. Their age is uncertain. But they certainly date back to the early years of the Old Settlers tradition.
“The kettles get so hot,” said Tekautz. “Maybe they burn the broth at the edges. It has to have something to do with the kettles.”
It makes sense that the magic of the metal is the key to a successful Old Settlers picnic.