Listening to promoter Walt Books talk, you'd think booya was the most versatile word in the English language. It's a food, a feast and a fundraiser, he says, and it's as indigenous to the state of Minnesota (where it's made, eaten and sold each autumn, notably in and around St. Paul) as wild rice.

Booya (the food, that is) is a cross between a soup and a stew, but it is neither, insists Books, a former rodeo director turned floral shop owner and booya promoter. It's a mix of oxtail and chicken, boiled "until the meat falls off the bones," then simmered with bushels, literally, of carrots, potatoes, onions and maybe some "rooterbaygers."

If all this seems rather simple, consider that a true Minnesota booya is prepared in no less than 30-gallon batches, out-of-doors ("preferably over a wood-burning fire," adds Books), and cooked for 24 hours or more.

It's probably the most labor-intensive dish ever devised, a comfort food perfectly suited to the often-bracing Minnesota clime, but its resemblance to a thick, stringy, vegetable-laden stew makes the latter a more practical, if less adventurous, endeavor. Not surprisingly, there's not a restaurant around that offers this gustatory treasure on its menu. And despite the national trend toward regionally grown and locally produced foodstuffs, this is one product you aren't likely to see in food shops anytime soon.

Thus its production is left to local firemen, church groups, the VFW, or anyone with the time and effort and a good cause to support.

"Whoever has booya never has trouble selling it," boasts Books. A booya is "a gathering place as much as a food," he says, adding that "people come for miles and miles just for a booya," often with big plastic pails in tow for toting the stuff home in bulk for later consumption. "It's a fall dish, served late in fall when vegetables are out, and cheap," explains Books, "but it's a real winter treat, because no one's making it then."

Fellow booya booster Marvin Soderquist calls it a "festival of the harvest," though he knows of local booyas that have been held as early as July. He figures there have been at least 40 such events so far this year.

Not since chili has there been a food that is subject to so much debate. Here's a dish that is without known origin, although Books thinks the term derives from the French word bouillir, meaning to boil. He supposes that early French settlers, specifically fur trappers, introduced the victual, using a variety of wild game ("deer, 'possom, rabbit . . . ") for filler. Then again, "no one really knows the story, it hasn't been chronicled," Books says. "Everyone has a story, but you can't discount any of them."

Indeed, some insist the dish is Polish, from the word bouja. Still others believe it to be Belgian in origin.

Thus, it follows that, depending upon one's origins, the spelling of this hearty concoction is subject to challenge, too. Minnesotans write booya. Aficionados in the neighboring state of Wisconsin, specifically those in Green Bay, who claim stake in a poultry-free version of the dish, record booyah.

The stuff is not for the timid, the chinless, the faint of heart. Indeed, booya is as macho as foods get -- Books calls it a "man's type dish" and declares matter of factly that booya cooking "is not a woman's type job -- my wife tried to get involved, like all women do," smirks Books, who has successfully kept his mate away from making the stuff.

Even the equipment suggests a sort of virility; the big, bell-shaped cast iron cauldrons used by most cooks require a lot of muscle ("it's like moving an army," says Books of a cook-off). What's more, the chauvinism extends to the site of the booya (Books has held several events in the South St. Paul Rodeo Grounds, his former bailiwick) and the cooking of booya itself, which can be something of a good-naturedly bawdy affair.

If "physical strength and mental attitude" are required of the male booya cooks, so is fortitude: "A good booya cook will be there to watch throughout," says Books.

And like an heirloom, the booya tradition is handed down from generation to generation. In this case, Books says, both the recipe and the pot are passed along (father to son, of course).

Good booya cooks guard their recipes as zealously as any self-respecting chili contest winner. Everyone has a secret ingredient ("it's always sweat," notes Books) that separates his batch from his neighbor's: Some add chocolate; Soderquist likes to add corn, but only toward the end of the cooking, so as to prevent souring; and a prospective booya cook from Houston once called Books to ask if jalapenos were permissible. Why not, was the promoter's response.

Yet Books prides himself on the use of local ingredients. What goes into the pots is all homegrown, "except the salt and pepper," says Books (who further insists "nothing foreign like oregano" goes into the making of an authentic booya). Recipes may vary, but beer is as essential to the pot as it is to the cook. A case of beer to every 50 pounds of booya isn't unusual, and no one keeps track of how much goes in the pot (or down one's hatch, for that matter). To be sure, a test of doneness is the booya chef's degree of sobriety, says Books. "It's done when you're drunk, or you've fallen asleep."

The final product is judged by its taste, texture and aroma. Says Books squarely, "Some of it tastes good, but doesn't smell good."

Soderquist, food service director at Cenex, an agriproducts firm, prepares as much as 105 gallons of the dish every month for company employes. "They have to have their booya," says Soderquist, who adds that the average 60-gallon batch he makes sells out within two hours after it's available in the cafeteria.

While Soderquist is obliged to cook in the confines of his cafeteria's kitchen, rather than outdoors, his version is otherwise authentic. Seventy pounds of chicken, 30 pounds of potatoes, 40 pounds of celery and 40 pounds of onions (along with his own secret ingredients) go into a batch of Soderquist's booya, but Books jokes that his associate's kitchen-made booya loses some aroma because "there's no dust in the air, the flies are absent."

Though he's been making booya only the past four years, Soderquist is something of a promoter himself; in addition to feeding Cenex employes, he's also responsible for the diet of the prisoners at nearby Stillwater state prison, and once suggested that booya be added to the inmates' menu. "It would be too much protein at one time," he was told, "they'd get fat on that stuff."

It was in fact a testimony to booya's richness.

While Soderquist tries to encourage greater booya consumption within the state, Books concentrates on promoting beyond the borders. Without much support, save that of a few loyal booya chefs, Books is waging a one-man campaign to rally the state tourism office behind his cause. "It's an unusual tourist attraction, it's native to Minnesota and it should be promoted by the state," he stresses. "I'd like to see the state of Minnesota come behind it on the steps of the capitol."

So, for the past three years, Books and a number of area booya cooks (including Soderquist, who met the promoter via an ad Books placed searching for fellow connoisseurs) have gathered to organize the world championship of booya. Considering that no one from outside the state has yet entered the competition, the "world" title is something of an overstatement, but in typical fashion, Books decided to go "all the way" on his promotion.

September's championship was deemed a "bust" by the promoter (poor weather and a shift in location were blamed), but past booyas have included as many as 10 chefs, thousands of consumers, and a roster of celebrity judges, including the mayor of Inver Grove Heights, a suburb of St. Paul, and Sen. Dave Durenberger (R-Minn.).

And it's that past show of support that boosts Books' moral. Getting good cooks isn't easy, he admits, but the ever-enthusiastic promoter dreams of the day when his Minnesota team can "play" against Green Bay, on the same date the two states' football teams are scheduled to compete against one another.

One can only imagine the rivalry of it all: the Vikings versus the Packers, "The North Star State" pitted against "The Badger State," and most importantly, of course, booya versus booyah. PINE CITY BOOYA (15 generous servings)

Here's a respectable booya that the home cook might find manageable.

Ann Burckhardt, food editor of the Minneapolis Star and Tribune's Taste section, calls booya a "highly personal, highly individualized" dish; indeed, her recipe files include versions using cabbage, green pepper and pork, in addition to beef and chicken. This rendition, submitted by a Pine City, Minn., reader, illustrates the point.

For best results, Burckhardt suggests making the booya a day before serving, and reheating it over low heat. The burned taste ("part of the secret" associated with booyas cooked out of doors) is missing from this recipe, but Burckhardt adds that "a little hovering the last hour" might be necessary to prevent the mix from sticking to the bottom of the kettle. Like any good booya, this freezes well, she adds.

1 cup navy beans, soaked overnight

4- to 5-pound stewing chicken

2 pounds stew beef, cut up

1 pound carrots, cut into chunks

4 ribs celery, sliced

2 large onions, minced

1 large clove garlic, minced

1/2 cup barley

16-ounce can whole tomatoes

10-ounce package whole kernel corn

2 large potatoes, peeled and diced

1/3 ounce pickling spices, wrapped in cheesecloth and tied with string

Salt and pepper to taste

Allspice to taste

Worcestershire sauce to taste

On cooking day, cook beans about 1 hour. In the largest deep-bottomed kettle you can find, add the beans, chicken and beef; cover with water and simmer, covered, over low heat 2 hours.

Remove meat and skim excess fat from the surface. Remove skin from chicken, separate meat from bones and cut up coarsely. Replace meats in stock.

Add vegetables, pickling spices and salt to taste. Simmer, covered, until flavors are well blended, stirring occasionally from the bottom, 1 hour.

Season as desired and serve hot.