The mountains had ruined the straight muscular body we remembered as children, turned it into a crooked spine, arthritic hands and a wrinkled face that exudes wilderness wisdom. Old Pappy looked at me through the flames of the campfire and the light smoke rising from the seasoning Dutch oven. We talked until the fresh coat of oil burned from the iron then, with a scrap of old blue jean; he wiped on another coat and lit the mound of briquettes.
Pappy’s voice carried kindness like fall canyon winds carry the aroma of a fresh baked pumpkin pie, sweet and beckoning. Twelve of us listened like apostles at the last supper.
“My dear Elva.” We all tipped our hats to her in remembrance. “Would cut fresh branches from an apple tree, strip the bark, and brown them on the fire. In the bottom of her Dutch oven, they gave a hint of smoke and fruit to her poultry.
“She loved feeding you all from her buried ovens,” he reminded us, as if we could ever forget our early years at Canyon Creek Fish Hatchery. Rim Country then had deep, cold winters, few elk and deer galore. Dirt roads turned to mud and ice from November to April. Sometimes we went to school, often we didn’t. Difficult times, long before computers, cell phones, and satellite TV. When weathermen lied and families huddled against the cold monotony of winter. We had to depend on each other to survive … Miss Elva fed us from her Dutch ovens.
“Buried ovens!” I said too loudly. “We need holes.” I darted for a shovel and started digging.
“Not quite as deep as the ovens are tall,” Pappy said before starting a rant about cooking in B western movies.
“You ever saw two show-biz cowboys traveling on horses carrying nothing but a blanket and two tiny flat saddle bags? Then they stop to camp and somehow they wind up cooking in cast iron skillets and Dutch ovens. They even have a coffee pot. Where did they carry all that? Did you ever try to put a Dutch oven in a saddlebag? Yikes ... Hollywood,” he chuckled.
Two apple sticks, celery stalks, and whole carrots crosshatched the bottom of the titanic 20-inch Dutch oven to keep our flock of Cornish game hens from scorching on the hot iron bottom.
We stuffed them with Stove Top stuffing, chopped peppers and butter chunks. We placed them atop the sticks and vegetables, sprinkled spices throughout, and lowered the 15-pound lid into place.
My first Dutch oven cobbler took nine hours to cook. I didn’t burn it. I did not eat it either, for fear of botulism.
Twelve friends wanted peach cobbler for dessert. The setting sun told me I didn’t have long. I didn’t want my childhood comrades to think I’d become a citified flatlander, (the worse thing ever). I had better get it right … quick, and that meant making my dirt hole hot and dry before adding cooking coals. Moist, cold earth draws the heat from cooking coals, slows the process. I primed the holes with coals and ash from the campfire, then scooped them out right before cooking.
The recipe for fruit cobbler is very simple, cake mix and canned fruit pie filling. Mix the cake batter according to the box and pour it into a foil-lined oven. Empty the pie filling onto the batter. Don’t burn it.
We strategically arraigned six white-hot briquettes in the hole for the cobbler and 20 under the battleship that held the Cornish hens. On the top, we placed a charcoal every two or three inches.
I’m a lid lifter. I want to know what is happening in my ovens so I check them often. When the cobbler rose, expanded to fill the oven, I removed one coal from the bottom and placed it on top.
The hens cooked fast, but they rested on sacrificial vegetables so I wasn’t afraid of burning them. Half way through I added more heat to the top to brown the skin of each bird.
The old man rose and leaned on his walking stick. “Dutch ovens are not from Holland. I think our patriot silversmith; Paul Revere crafted the first one. The Dutch folks carried them west in the 1800s. Because of the thick iron walls, they hold heat for hours. The Dutch loaded them with hot coals in the morning and tied them under their wagons as they trailed west. Then when evening came and the wagons circled, they had hot coals for fire building and cooking. Sounds like a good way to burn up a wagon train.”
The history lesson evaporated into a moon lit bouquet of steamy brown hens, meat falling from the bone, sweet and rich peach cobbler, a campfire, and a prayer. If we could bottle this congress, we could end wars.