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Humble Dutch oven becomes glamorous in hands of a gourmand

30 Jan

The following article originally appeared in the January 29, 2009 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

by Clint Thomsen

The following statement may surprise you coming from a rugged outdoorsman like me: I like Food Network.

No, I’m not talking about the cable channel’s cream puff daytime programming. I’m talking about the hip stuff they run at night. OK, so “Iron Chef America” isn’t quite as chic as “American Idol,” and as far as I know, megaproducer Jerry Bruckheimer has no hand in shows like “Ace of Cakes” and “Good Eats.”

But here’s the deal: I’ve got two jobs and four — soon to be five — small children. After a long day of cubicle politics and thwarting my 1-year-old’s relentless attempts to flush her brother’s matchbox cars down the toilet, the missus and I aren’t exactly up for stylized forensics or complex story arcs. Often, an hour or two of watching people cook is just what hits the spot.

My favorite show is “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives,” which follows host Guy Fieri around the country as he visits local eateries. In each episode, Guy arrives in a ’67 Camaro convertible to sample menu items. I felt a little like Guy as I planned last weekend’s adventure. Granted, my destination was the mud-caked campground at Grantsville Reservoir and my ride was a Ford minivan. But my game plan was the same.

Friday night’s venue was the annual Boy Scout Klondike Derby. The theme was Dutch oven. The expert: 75-year-old Woody Watts. He had braved the fog and mud in order to school Troop 1186 in the art of the ancient cooking pot.

I hadn’t planned to have dinner with Troop 1186 that night. It was just the luck of the draw. I had originally planned to arrive later that evening to cover the Dutch oven dessert contest — and hopefully inhale a plate or two of delicious cobbler in the name of journalism. But as I watched the fog thicken, I decided to head out before Mother Nature could throw another curve ball.

Visibility was zero when I turned onto North Willow Road. I couldn’t remember whether the pavement ended before or after the turn-off to the reservoir, so I followed the faint tail lights of a Jeep 10 yards ahead of me, hoping its driver would spot the turn-off. He didn’t.

Neither did the four vehicles passing us on their way back down the canyon road. The Jeep and I turned around to join them. Together we formed a blind convoy with some trucks sending passengers outside to probe the roadside for the turn-off. Yeah, it was that bad.

We crept along, both laughing at and cursing the irony of our blind search for one of the valley’s most obvious landmarks — a lake that most of us had probably grown up fishing on.

When we finally reached the campground, I parked at the first troop campsite I saw. Small fires studded the hillside, illuminating blurry tent walls. Scouts stood around the fires chatting and goofing off — each troop in its own little world. Their self-contained campsites draped with heavy mist created a surreal scene, like some sort of mystical world that only appears when fog chokes out reality.

Most camps nursed one or two Dutch ovens stacked with coals between them on raised grills. I walked from camp to camp to see what was cooking. Troops 604 and 1552 were working on cobblers. The latter was also brewing a “mystery stew.”

Back near my van, Woody Watts quietly supervised Troop 1186 as they prepared barbecue chicken and two batches of cookies ‘n’ cream dessert. One of the boys stirred a pot of rice on a camp stove. I immediately recognized him as Kaden Clements, the kid who eats bugs for money, who I wrote about last spring.

Woody downplayed his expertise, as most good Dutch oven chefs do. But he’s had 20 years of “D.O.” cooking under his belt. The troop’s leaders were quick to praise his award-winning baby back ribs. Woody’s favorite recipes came from the Festival of the American West, where Dutch oven aficionados build upon tradition and time-honored process.

The practice of cooking in cast metal vessels is thought to have originated in Europe during the 1600s. The British imported most of their ovens from the Netherlands, as the Dutch foundry process was considered vastly superior. Englishman Abraham Darby studied the Dutch system, and in 1708 began to produce what came to be known as “Dutch ovens” for Britain and her colonies.

Here, our enterprising forefathers added three legs to the oven, which allowed it to rest above the coals and made it stackable. Additionally, they added a ridge to the lid to contain the coals on top. This improved Dutch oven became a staple of every household that could afford one.

The versatile pot accompanied Lewis and Clark on their explorations and was carried west by Mormon pioneers, who considered it a necessity despite its size and weight. In 1997, the Utah State Legislature designated the Dutch oven as the official State Cooking Pot.

Dutch oven cooking was also popular with mountain men and cowboys. The tradition continues today — especially in the ranks of the Boy Scouts. It’s a long process with a grueling cleanup, but it’s worth it to hobbyists like Woody.

“It’s the TLC that makes it taste so special,” he said

The secret, he said, is to get a good Dutch oven, season it well, and take care of it. He nursed the coals on the deserts while another leader checked the chicken. Hungry scouts lined up to devour it. Thankfully they left a piece for me. It was delicious.

“A Dutch oven is like a good wife,” Woody told me. “You take care of it.” Then he chuckled. “But you don’t, and you’re in trouble.”

I couldn’t stick around for the dessert contest. The fog had somewhat cleared, and I took advantage of what turned out to be a very short window. My exit wasn’t as cool as Guy Fieri’s is, but I’d take that night’s experience over a TV show any day.

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2 responses to “Humble Dutch oven becomes glamorous in hands of a gourmand

  1. Kristine Shreve

    February 3, 2009 at 10:12 pm

    I remember dutch oven cooking over a fire from when I was a Girl Scout. The food always tasted better for some reason, and the Cobbler was the best!

     

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