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The Test is the Taste

 

Two Entrees on the Coals

There was a mix of aromas coming from Elmer’s Garden at the Prowers County Fairgrounds this past Thursday afternoon, August 10th. Passers-by noted the distinct bouquet of onions and garlic, sizzling in a pan heated over open charcoals; and that was just the beginning.

Slicing and Dicing

The Santa Fe Dutch Oven Cooking Exhibition got underway at 2pm with five teams in friendly competition to produce their own versions of beef stew, corn bread and peach cobbler, all done the way foods had been cooked by cowboys over a century ago, either out on the plains or in a sod house or lean-to, wherever a stand-up stove was not available. The exhibition was organized by Chad Hart, a member of the Santa Fe Cookers, a group devoted to producing meals using portable pots and charcoal.

Chad and Cheryl Hart

“We’ve been doing this for some time now,” Hart explained after the teams had been given their supplies and guidelines at Elmer’s Garden, the site of the exhibition that ran from 2pm to 5pm when samples of their efforts were distributed free to the general public. “Folks will be able to vote on their favorite meal from each of the teams by tossing a dry bean in the three cups set up at each cook site,” he said.  Everybody had the basics to produce their food; three pounds of roast as well as assorted onions, potatoes, garlic bulbs, flour, water, salt and pepper.  Some got a little fancy, adding jalapeno peppers, tomato paste, bay leaves or an aged bottle of stout beer into the pot.

“Come and Get It”

The trick, Hart explained, was to make sure you had the right sized pot, and not just any pot. These are specially made for Dutch Oven Cooking with a specific lid that can hold up to 20 or so briquettes on top and more or fewer below, those that the pot will be sitting on.  It depends on what you’re cooking and the amount.  He recommended that with these ovens, every now and then, you give them a quarter turn to make sure you aren’t setting your food on any hot spots for too long.

Once the coals were hot and the ingredients sliced and diced it was like any other meal being prepared; lift the lid, add some spices or ingredients, stir and close the lid. Over the three hour process, more hot coals had to be added above and below the pot until the meals were completed.  The stew went first, followed by the cornbread with the peach cobbler.  It became just a bit more hectic balancing the cooking duties among the three ovens per team.

Hart and his wife, Cheryl, have taken their historic meal-making process on tour, catering for various events while displaying their unique talents at locations where they’re a natural fit such as Boggsville, the Arena at Camp Amache or Bent’s Old Fort. Cheryl said the degree of difficulty can increase with the historic authenticity demanded at some places.  “I know that yeast has been in use for centuries and was used by cooks on the Plains, but some places won’t allow it if it isn’t in the particular historical book they’re referring to.  That makes it all the more interesting,” she allowed.

By 5pm, the meals were done and available to the public. Whoever wandered into the campsite could grab a small bowl and a plastic spoon and sample whatever they desired.  Several people tried all the stews or only a small sample of cobbler or cornbread.  Several made a return trip to one table that featured butter rum syrup for their cobbler.   One table contained several cookbooks with Dutch Oven recipes gleaned over the decades as well as descriptions of the cooking process.  No one went away hungry.

“I think we’ll do this again next year,” Hart ventured, noting the size of the turnout sampling the varieties. “We will probably do some more advertising letting people know where we are and what we’re doing as well as telling them there’ll be free food they can sample.”

By Russ Baldwin

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