Aside from a coffee pot, good eating in hunting camp demands only one thing: a Dutch oven.
I got my first taste of this art form at a New Mexico deer camp 25 years ago, when we returned to our rigs and one of the men took his cherished Dutch oven out of its burlap sack.
He lighted a large, fast-burning, smoky fire from dead, gnarled, silver-gray sagebrush. He then dug a hole in the ground just big enough so he could bury his Dutch oven.
He shoveled half the ashes into the hole and put the Dutch oven in to heat up. Next, he spooned in a generous dollop of lard that quickly liquefied and started to smoke.
From his cooler he withdrew a plastic bag holding strips of meat marinated in red chili sauce. Those spattered and popped when they hit the hot grease and delicious smells started to rise. He tossed in a few potatoes that he had peeled and cubed.
After mixing the potatoes with the meat, he put the lid on the oven and shoveled the rest of the coals on top. The buried pot soon baked the chili to perfection.
Served with some good flour tortillas, the chili was the best in the history of the planet.
To pull its weight outdoors, a true Dutch oven must have a tight-fitting, flanged lid for holding coals on top and three pointy legs for holding the pot above the coals underneath.
The nation owes a debt of thanks to Don Holm, the former outdoors editor of the (Portland) Oregonian, who wrote “The Old-Fashioned Dutch Oven Cookbook.”
Holm relates in his book that Dutch ovens played a critical role in the European settlement of the country, feeding the Lewis and Clark expedition as well as other explorers, prospectors and cowboys as they moved west.
But while the use of the Dutch oven persisted among shepherds and ranchers, Holm says the general public largely abandoned them in the convenience-oriented decades following World War II.
Demand had fallen so low for Dutch ovens when he first started working on his book that the Lodge Manufacturing Co., one of the nation’s major suppliers of cast iron cookware, had stopped making them. After the book came out in the late 1960s, he wrote in later editions, the company got so many requests that it put them back into production.
Holm’s book describes how to cook such frontier delights as “Woodchuck Pot Roast” and “Dutch Oven Turtle.” It’s safe to assume that Holm was not a man given to shivering in his bedroll on an empty stomach.
My wife, Susie, and I recently camped out with our son Stan for a week along the Greys River in western Wyoming, using our Dutch ovens every day.
We baked bread and cinnamon rolls. For the baking, we piled glowing charcoal briquettes in a ring around the top of the oven lids while putting just a few briquettes underneath. It’s all right to peak in once in a while to see how things are going, but don’t do it too often.
“I guess I somehow thought it was going to be more difficult, but it’s no harder than doing it in your kitchen,” Susie said of using a Dutch oven. “I think it’s pretty much the same as baking bread at home. It tasted just as good.”
We also cooked pork chops, stews and chili by placing the ovens directly on the campfire coals without putting any on the lids. Sometimes, when we were eager to get under way in the mornings, we fried bacon, eggs and trout in our Dutch ovens on our gas stove.
Everything was delicious. Dutch ovens always seem to produce the best-tasting food. Perhaps that’s because being outdoors makes your senses, and hunger, come alive.
Our collection ranges from a tiny, 5-inch diameter pot that’s perfect for cooking a single blue grouse on a backpacking trip up to a 12-inch monster that can feed a platoon of hungry campers or bake a large loaf of bread.
Susie regrets wasting money on lighter-duty pots over the years that haven’t lasted as well as our Dutch ovens. However, the durability and good food come with a price.
“The only drawback I see is that they’re damned heavy, you can hurt your wrist working with them,” she said.