Champagne of the coal regions
DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS Taste-testers line up to sample varieties of boilo during the Seventh Annual Tamaqua Boilo Competition held at the Tamaqua Elks and sponsored by Dave and Judy Johns and family.
Everyone loves a good, old-fashioned cook-off.
But a cook-off can mean different things to different people. On the prairies of Texas, it's all about chili.
But in the mountains of Pennsylvania, boilo cook-offs reign supreme, especially in the anthracite coal regions where boilo isn't merely a drink, but a legendary health tonic.
It's so revered that boilo cook-offs and boilo judging are time-honored traditions.
Many claim the drink to have healthful benefits, a holistic elixir, which might account for its popularity during the deep freeze of wintertime. They say the aromatic nectar warms the innards on a bitter cold night and hastens the exit of colds and flu.
So what is boilo? Coalcrackers say it's a homemade concoction handed down from grandpa. Everybody has a different recipe as much as everybody has a different grandpa.
"There are so many kinds of boilo," says Judy Keller Johns, Tamaqua.
Dave and Judy Johns have been hosting an annual boilo cook-off for seven years, something that began in their West Broad Street home and eventually moved to the Tamaqua Elks Lodge.
"It outgrew the house," Judy explains.
It's not unusual for the cook-off to feature 20 different varieties, including one called Apple Pie Boilo.
For Judy, traditional boilo brings back memories of her father's business establishment, Keller's Hotel, at the corner of West Broad and South Railroad Street, near the Tamaqua Comfort Station. The hotel is long gone and the parcel is now the main entrance to M&S Hardware.
At that location, coal miners routinely drank boilo to soothe their chest congestion.
"Years ago, the original boilo was made with moonshine," Judy recalls, explaining that every member of the family was given a taste treat, even if just a sip.
"If you had a cold, your parents would give you a little bit of it to sweat it out."
The tradition has long been associated with Poland and Lithuania, where a similar recipe is known as krupnik, or krupnikas, based on grain spirit and honey.
Dave Johns, a native of New Mexico, became a boilo fan in the early 1970s when he served in the U. S. Navy, stationed at Norfolk. But it wasn't there where he tasted his first sip of the spicy delight; it was during his weekend trips to Tamaqua when he dated Judy and visited her parents' tavern and hotel.
Little did he know he'd eventually serve as boilo contest host of a party so large that it would move into an Elks hall.
"We started giving out prizes and it just got too big," says Dave.
Among the first contestants at the December contest were Nicole Lombo and Kevin Reese, Ashland, who say they make about six cases of boilo each year.
"I use a family recipe handed down from my stepfather," says Lombo. "They had Razzi's," she adds, referring to an Ashland bar.
In four out of seven years, the top vote-getter at the Johns' contest was a variety of boilo made by Stephanie Gursky, whose recipe was handed down from her grandmother, Ann Legutko, Port Carbon.
"You don't taste the alcohol. It tastes more like a malt honey. It's a warming drink when you come in from winter's cold," says Stephanie. She says the list of ingredients was discovered in a wooden box after her grandmother passed away.
Stephanie recalls how the recipe was enjoyed by her parents, the late Ed and Donna Gursky, Tamaqua.
(On a side note, the boilo contest truly became a family affair when Stephanie married Nathan Johns, son of Dave and Judy, and master of ceremonies at the competition.)
So what is Stephanie's secret ingredient for prize-winning boilo?
"Lots of love," she says with a smile.
During the contest, the bottles were kept warm in chafing dishes to ensure optimum tasting temperature and to enhance the bouquet. Seventeen varieties were sampled by scores of attendees, all of whom filled out a ballot to indicate their favorites
"I think #14 is the best," says Rusty Nelson, Tamaqua. "It has the best apple taste."
Allen Keich, Tamaqua, lauded the entire competition.
"I think this is a wonderful event. There's a distinct difference in each of the boilos."
Another says success with boilo requires improvisation.
"I use a magic touch from my mother's cooking," says Laura Artim, McAdoo, on hand with husband John.
"I like grain in it, and I like it cold."
Although not part of the competition, attendee Marlene Randig says she made boilo for many years and always enjoyed the experience, relying a special family recipe.
"The recipe said to use grain alcohol and to open all the windows, and it was strained four times."
Husband Paul Randig says he discovered boilo when he came to the anthracite region from his native Pittsburgh area in the late 1970s.
"It's an art. I love it," he says, noting that he observed a similar custom when he spent time in Germany.
After three hours of tasting and camaraderie, the votes were cast and Jennifer and Nathan Johns tallied ballots.
First place went to Donnette Miller, second, Stephanie Johns, and third, Wendy Gerber, all of Tamaqua.
True to boilo-making tradition, none of the top finishers would reveal their secret ingredients.
"This is the first time I made it," admits Miller, who says she used someone else's recipe and then tweaked it to suit.
For Gerber, who made Apple Pie Boilo, it was her first time as well. "I looked it up and then put in some of my own stuff."
The marble-and-brass first place trophy, made in parody to a gold Academy award, was created by Dave Johns and stood on a solid oak foundation handcrafted by Steve Bayer of Owl Creek. Bayer designed the base to serve a utilitarian purpose as it doubles as a liquor valet. The prized trophy is kept in the home of the winner for one year and then returned to next year's competition, where it goes up for grabs once again.
Other boilo cook-offs will continue throughout the winter. For instance, the wildly popular Holly Road Boilo Festival, now in its 12th year, will take place in Rush Township in February and includes awards given in five categories.
Judy Johns says she's noticed a certain pattern when it comes to the competitions. Taste-testing the many different boilo varieties seems to produce voters who are fickle.
"When they taste it, they like to sample the strong ones," says Judy. "But when they pick a winner, it's the smooth one."
So what exactly makes the drink so smooth? Nobody is saying a word.
And so the mystique of coal region boilo endures.