Dutch Oven Delights

See for yourself how an annual gathering of cooks from across the nation is keeping the time-honored techniques of camp Dutch ovens alive and well.

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by John Gladman Photography

Cooking is a great way to bring people together, and nothing epitomizes this more than the National Dutch Oven Gathering (NDOG) — an annual meeting of people from across the United States and Canada who’ve discovered that a love of food can center around a love of Dutch ovens.

To many home cooks, a Dutch oven is a large, deep pot that churns out endless batches of stovetop soups and chilis for family dinners. Before I visited with the attendees of the 2018 NDOG in Hutchinson, Kansas, I was of the same opinion; a Dutch oven meant my mother’s enormous, enameled Le Creuset pot. That mental image was corrected the moment I stepped into the room for NDOG’s daily group breakfast. Inside was a long row of tables boasting dozens upon dozens of “camp” Dutch ovens, each full of food that’d been cooked on the fairgrounds that morning: French toast, country grits, biscuits and gravy, eggs, and so on.

To participants of the national and all other regional gatherings, a Dutch oven is a cast-iron or aluminum pot that sits on three short legs. The pots are made for outdoor cooking, and meant to be settled over smoldering charcoal when the convenience of a stove isn’t available, or simply isn’t wanted. The legs allow coals to be set beneath the Dutch oven, while a rim on the flat, handled lid keeps coals on top from sliding off. Heating the pot from the top and bottom means even cooking all the way around, while the number of coals and the way in which they’re arranged results in different cooking temperatures and cooking methods, from baking and roasting to frying and simmering.

Apart from a chance to cook alongside like-minded Dutch oven fans, NDOG is a weekend full of good food, learning opportunities, and friendly competition. When the energetic hosts of the 2018 event, Matthew and Sandi Brandes, announced the winners of the Golden Spoon Awards during breakfast, I realized that our breakfast buffet was the first of those competitions. Once the best sweet and savory dishes of the morning had been honored, the day really began, with classes to observe and more cooking to be done.

Coming Back for Seconds

After I sat in on Dennis Slane and Barry Trimmell’s Dutch Oven 101 class, Matthew introduced me to a handful of people who had long histories with the organization. First, I met Bill Ryan, who’s been a part of the event since its earliest stages. “It all started because of Yahoo Groups,” he told me. Originally, the online, Dutch-oven-centric group was meant for sharing techniques and recipes from different regions of the nation. Then, Tom Sims and Ken Brown — both highly regarded Dutch oven cooks — stumbled upon the site and realized they could create quite the community by inviting those scattered group members to meet in one place to share food and fellowship. They founded the first NDOG in Texas in 2004.

Tom recruited Bill to the group in 2006, and later asked him to host the 2010 event. “And then, all of a sudden, I became the recruiter,” Bill said to general laughter. However it happened, Bill has more than earned the job; at the time we spoke, he’d already chosen the hosts and locations of NDOG through 2023. I then met Terry Cobb, who hasn’t missed a gathering since 2007. “All you have to do is ask for a volunteer; somebody’s going to jump in,” he said.

Take the Brandeses, for example. Matthew told me, “About six years ago, we were sitting around a campfire in Arkansas after competing in the Elk River Festival Dutch Oven Competition. A group of us were chatting about NDOG, and Bill made a comment about hosting the event in Kansas in 2018. Sandi and I jokingly said, ‘Sure, why not,’ and gave it no further thought.” Before long, though, everyone at NDOG was talking about bringing the event to Kansas, and Matthew and Sandi took up the mantle.

While plenty of attendees bring a lifelong love of Dutch ovens to the event — many of them having learned to use the equipment as Scouts — not all participants have such a background. Past NDOG hosts Leslie and Steve Lovett didn’t discover their love of the craft until about a decade ago, when Steve and a few family members stumbled across a Dutch oven demo. The sourdough bread and cake they tried had them rushing home to extol the possibilities of a cooking technique Steve hadn’t seen since his Boy Scout days. “You would’ve thought they’d all met the president of the United States,” Leslie said. “All the food they tried was the best they’d ever put in their mouths.”

Soon after, Steve spent a small fortune on Dutch oven cooking equipment. The couple attended their first regional gathering the following month, where Leslie mostly hung back and watched. “I wasn’t really sure,” Leslie said. “And then I ate the food.”

“That’s about the time that Leslie got the bug,” her husband said. “And the hundred bucks I’d spent at Cabela’s was dwarfed by her ‘cast-iron-itis.'”

Similarly, Robin and Dennis Clute didn’t get involved until 2012, when the Lovetts invited them to volunteer at that year’s NDOG in Texas. The couple helped with videos and silent auctions throughout the weekend, and on their way home that Sunday, Robin asked Dennis if he wanted to give Dutch oven cooking a try. “I said, ‘No way, that’s too much work,'” Dennis said. But then they bought a 12-inch Dutch oven, and haven’t stopped cooking with it since.

As well as frequenting NDOG, the Lovetts, the Clutes, Bill Ryan, and Terry Cobb all attend regional gatherings, and they’ve each competed in the International Dutch Oven Society’s (IDOS) World Championship Cook-Off. The Clutes placed third one year.

Even with their dedication and success, the Lovetts say their primary reason for coming to NDOG again and again isn’t the food, but the friendships. And they aren’t alone in the sentiment; they estimated that at least 60 percent of the people at the 2018 NDOG were returning participants who’d traveled from Texas, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Canada to spend time cooking together again. Though the event began on a Friday, plenty of people showed up days before the event to help Matthew and Sandi set up. “It’s all about getting together, enjoying each other’s company, and meeting new people,” Bill said.

Digging In

Although the food may not be the focus for those who’ve driven across the country to reunite with good friends, there’s certainly plenty of food to be had. I first heard what I came to think of as NDOG’s unofficial motto from Terry Cobb: “Anything you can cook in your house, we can cook in a Dutch oven.” He backed it up by saying he could even make ice cream. I hesitated, wondering if this was a joke, since we were surrounded by hot, charcoal-covered cooking stations, but Terry was serious. He explained that the basic technique simply requires surrounding a Dutch oven with ice instead of charcoal.

Throughout the day, attendees who weren’t learning new ways to make pies, breads, and cheesecakes in their Dutch ovens were competing in one of several cooking events. While Bill and Terry talked to me, two cakes were cooking a couple of yards away for the upcoming Carrot Cake Throwdown. The previous day, there’d been a Three-Pot Dutch Oven Competition, in which participants made a main dish, bread, and dessert within an allotted amount of time. Each year, the winner of this contest advances to the IDOS Championship Cook-Off.

NDOG even holds a separate Youth Cooking Competition. I watched while both teenagers and kids, some under the age of 12, made their meals. Passionate about their skills, each one enthusiastically explained their recipes and techniques to me. One boy proudly declared his cooking inspiration to be cowboy Kent Rollins. After eagerly describing the chocolate turtle cake she was making, another teen cook said, “It doesn’t matter too much if I win; it’s my first time.” She’d made new friends that weekend who’d encouraged her to compete just two days prior. She ended up winning her category.

A Community of Cooks

People initially come to NDOG for the experience, to simply volunteer, or to see something new, but the friendships they make and the community they build keep them coming back year after year. Whenever I needed someone or something, there was a line of people waiting to help me. Those I interviewed offered me cookbooks, cast-iron tips, crafts, and project plans. Leslie Lovett invited me to sit in her air-conditioned RV while we spoke, and I left with a handmade “scrubby” — which I still use to clean my dishes — and a link to her website packed with Dutch oven recipes. Dennis Clute directed me to the plans for “The Clute Cooker” — a portable cooktop of his own construction that improves airflow around a Dutch oven.

With a hobby centered on something as specific as Dutch ovens, it’s no wonder that those who love it travel from far and wide to gather in full force. If you’re interested in seeing it for yourself, the 2019 NDOG will be held October 11-13 in Hillsdale, Illinois. You can cook alongside passionate people, learn something new about the craft, and experience the fellowship for yourself. Like so many others, you may leave with the urge to buy a new piece of cast-iron cooking equipment and put it to the test.

Read More: Autumn Sweet Potatoes Recipe 

Sweet Cast-Iron Creations

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Haley Casey is an editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS. When she’s not reading or writing, she can be found optimistically plotting her garden or collecting new ideas for delicious recipes.