Beginning in July 2020, I became a regular contributor to Wisconsin Outdoor News (WON) in "From The Little Cabin In The Woods" column.
This article was published in the WON October 16, 2020, issue.
My first experience with Dutch oven cooking came when I was an 11-year old Girl Scout at Camp Sherwood in Lapeer County, Michigan. One of the camp activities that made an impression on me was the preparation of a meal that the counselors called “Ham in A Bean Hole.” This involved digging a hole in the ground, building a fire in the hole, putting a ham in a cast iron Dutch oven. and burying the whole thing. I am a bit sketchy on the details and that memory lapsing becomes more important later as a I describe my first Dutch oven disaster.
There are many explanations for the term “Dutch oven”. I like the one that theorizes that an Englishman travelled to the Netherlands in the early 16th century to investigate a casting process used to make brass cooking vessels. He went home to make improvements to the process and marketed his wares as Dutch ovens.
Today, the ovens are made of cast iron. Some have legs and some flat bottoms. They are like those that pioneer women used in their fireplaces when no modern-day oven existed on the frontier. I have three of these, two Lodges and one Wagner. Mine are all flat on the bottom. The Wagner has a rimmed lid which is handy for holding coals on top of the oven.
The aforementioned disaster happened on a Fourth of July camping trip. We went to the Bobcat Lake Campground in the Ottawa National Forest in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with friends Jim and Elaine Kalmbacher, whom you met in the last article. This all happened 30 years ago. Stan and I do not remember this the same way (not unusual) so I did my fact checking with Elaine.
We were getting into quite a bit of camping in those days. The Forest Service campgrounds were less developed and quieter. It was not hard to find a spectacular site on the shore of some beautiful lake. This was worth the trade-off of fewer amenities. Bobcat Lake was just such a place.
The day of the oven disaster, the plan was to put a beef roast and veggies in a Dutch oven to recreate the meal from my Girl Scout days. We would spend the day biking or checking out waterfalls and return to a meal that cooked itself safely underground while we were gone.
We dug a hole next to the fire pit at the campsite. Not to worry, we did not disturb any vegetation and left the site in “Leave No Trace” condition. We built a fire in the hole. When it got going well, we put the oven in and covered it up. Stan looked skeptical. But even 20 years into our relationship he had learned that sometimes it is better to just dig the hole and remain silent.
In the end, the roast and vegetables were raw, but sort of gray looking. The fire had snuffed out and there had not been enough heat to cook the food. A quick Google today would give you all sorts of ways to rectify these issues. I do not remember what we had for dinner that night.
Two years later, two things happened in the same autumn. We did the first Becoming an Outdoors-Woman (BOW) workshop and Stan and I went on our first elk hunt to Idaho with Michigan friend, Jim Empson. These two events caused a renaissance in my interest in Dutch ovens.
While in elk camp, I met a wonderful man in the person of Darrel Johnson, a retired Missoula police officer, who had hired on as the camp cook. The camp was a three-hour horseback ride across Lost Horse Pass, into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area. Each day of the hunt started with below zero weather. Each evening tired and aching, I trusted a horse I did not know to navigate tight and twisting trails under the glittering Milky Way. My brain focused on the pleasure of a warm cook tent, the smell of great food, a glass of wine and Darrel’s smiling face. The food was phenomenal. There were fresh baked goods at every meal. Apple pie starred in the show. How did Darrel manage apple pie in elk camp? A Dutch oven!
The next year we invited Darrel to teach Dutch oven cooking at the Wisconsin BOW program. Later he taught for us in Montana as well. He was a big hit with his students. I came back to Dutch oven cooking.
We were still doing a lot of camping in those days. I loved wowing our companions with pie, biscuits, and stews from my ovens. Stan used to joke that we could never camp on Madeline Island as I carried enough cast iron to sink the ferry.
Camping is a lot of work. A great deal of packing, hauling, unpacking, and cleaning happens for a trip and in its aftermath. Life became more complicated. I put the Dutch ovens away and forgot them as camping drifted into the past.
Then, a few weeks ago, I saw that Julia Plugge, the Nebraska BOW coordinator, was offering a Zoom course on Dutch oven cooking. I thought this might be a good reason to dust off those old ovens and polish up my old skills. So, I signed up for the course.
The next step was to locate the ovens. The one in the basement was in great shape. The two that were up in the garage and in the shed at the cabin were rusted and disgraceful. Right now, cast iron gurus all over Wisconsin, especially my friend Tom Dew, the King of Cast Iron, up in Hayward are scornfully shaking their heads.
“How could she let this happen?’, they are asking disgustedly.
Well, I took my punishment in the form of hours of scouring out the vessels with SOS pads and re-seasoning the ovens. They look “pretty good.”
A scheduling glitch prevented me from taking the BOW course. I decided to persevere anyway. It is apple season, so I prepared an apple pie. Stan lit a fire in his Weber Kettle grill. I put the pie, which I had prepared in a pie plate, in the Dutch oven. I covered the oven with its lid and placed coals on the top of the lid. In an inspiration, I put the lid on the grill and used its thermometer to monitor the temperature. I had some trouble controlling the temperature, but practice could solve that.
One hour later, I pulled a golden apple pie from the Dutch oven.
In Stan’s words, “It is pretty darn good.”
Had you come into the cook tent at the end of a long day of elk hunting, the smell and taste of that apple pie would have made you a happy camper.