By Jenny Neyman
In cooking, there’s a level of surprise inherent in lifting the lid and bringing that first forkful into the mouth — Is it done? Did it cook too long? Does it need more cumin? Should this recipe be burned along with dinner?
As part of Soldotna’s Progress Days festivities, the element of surprise will be amplified for a few chefs, since some will walk away winners for what comes out of their pots.
Not that the contestants much care about winning. This cooking competition isn’t like the ones popular on TV these days, a la “Top Chef,” “Chopped” or “Iron Chef,” although it does involve a whole lot of iron.
The Alaska Dutch Oven State Championship will be held July 24 at Soldotna Creek Park. The name is more of a goal for growth than descriptor for this first year’s event, since it will be mostly Kenai Peninsula Dutch oven cooks participating. But organizers Dr. Nels and Carla Anderson hope this takes off and draws contestants from across the state, and sends one winner off to the 2010 International Dutch Oven Society’s World Championships.
“Hopefully it’s an annual event,” Anderson said. “I think once it gets going it’ll be good. I think it could really be a pretty big deal and be able to draw people from around the state. There are some cooks out there that just have to have time to think about stuff in advance.”
Anderson said he hopes the competition element is the hook to draw in people, but the overall point is to expand the Dutch oven cooking circle in Alaska.
“Some of us are a little competitive and are hoping to win this thing,” he said. “But it really is a lot of fun. It’s designed to have good friends, good fun and good food. That’s what it’s really about.”
Dutch ovens have been a staple of Anderson’s camping experiences since he was a kid.
“Onions and potatoes in a Dutch oven, that was just a divine meal,” he said.
As a Boy Scouts master, he’s been passing on the skill of Dutch oven cooking to younger generations of campers. He hopes to draw a large turnout for the competition but expects they do the tradition — and the taste-tester judges — proud.
“It’s supposed to be prepared from scratch,” he said. “Basically we’re encouraging younger people participating to not just pour in something. We don’t want them to just pour beans and stuff together and make chili. That’s not cooking.”
Anderson said he’s been surprised at how underutilized Dutch oven cooking is in Alaska and he’d like to reverse the trend.
“If you’ve got a fixed base camp there’s no excuse for bad food. You can cook anything you can cook in an oven at home in there. I eat better on camp trips than I do at home,” Anderson said.
DeRay Jones, of the Soldotna-Sterling area, is planning on competing with his wife, Darla. He’s also hoping to talk his son, Stockton, into competing in the youth division.
Jones said he’s been experimenting with Dutch oven cooking for about six or seven years, when the family bought a camper trailer and started doing camping outings.
“For me it’s just a challenge to see what you can do that’s not just hot dogs on a campfire,” Jones said. “I like the relaxation of being around a campfire but having something to do and something to watch and tend is nice. And it’s a challenge. I don’t really know how to cook much at home so it’s something I’ve learned to do a little bit and built some confidence with it.”
The true fun of Dutch oven cooking is its social aspect, especially when families camp together, Jones said. The meals are best when served to many people. That’s why he’s trying the competition, to meet other people who enjoy Dutch oven cooking and to gain some new ideas from them.
“From our standpoint, doing it as a competition is just to try to find people who might be interested in meeting with us and sharing ideas, it becomes more of a social thing. I don’t know anybody too concerned about winning, it’s about sharing ideas, learning tricks and that kind of stuff,” he said
Not that winning wouldn’t be fun, too, but that isn’t Jones’ primary concern. His style of Dutch oven cooking is more come-and-get-it than gourmet. One of the family’s favorite Dutch oven creations is “dump cake.” Even the kids can make it.
“Dump cake is really just supereasy. I hesitate to say how easy because people aren’t impressed anymore,” he said.
Dump one can pie filling into a Dutch oven, dump a box of cake mix over that, dot chunks of butter on top and let it cook.
“It turned out like a cobbler, it’s very easy. The kids like to do that. When we’re out camping people ooh and ahh over it and the kids think it’s neat they’ve done something like that,” he said.
For the competition, Jones is thinking of making a casserole of some sort for his main dish, maybe lasagna or an enchilada casserole his family likes. He plans– to look through some recipes for new ideas.
The website of the International Dutch Oven Society has tips and recipes of past winners of the world championship, held in March. This year’s winners prepared bacon herbed-wrapped tenderloin, raspberry pineapple sweet bread and carmel apple cheesecake bars with streusel topping.
“I need to get the cookbook out. Last year’s (world championship) winner was pretty impressive,” Jones said. “I thought I better pump it up. I don’t think dump cake’s going to win.”
The state championship in Soldotna this year functions by the same rules as the world championship. There’s a 17-and-under youth competition and an open adult category, although youth can choose to participate in the open category if they’d like. Entries are generally teams of two. Youth teams must make one dish, either a main dish or dessert, in their three-hour time limit Saturday. In the open category, contestants get four hours to make three dishes — a main dish, bread and a dessert. Contestants must bring all materials and ingredients and can do prep work in advance. Cooking must take place at the park. There will be stations set up for hot coals or charcoal and tents in case it starts raining.
There is still time to register to participate. Anderson prefers people sign up in advance, so they know how many to accommodate, but if there’s still space on the day of the competition, people can just show up and cook. The registration form is available on the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce website. For more information, contact Anderson at email@example.com or 262-3280. For more information on Dutch oven cooking in general, visit the International Dutch Oven Society website at http://www.idos.com.