The coals, orange and hot, are just about ready. Cast iron Dutch ovens line the metal tables. The ingredients are chopped. The chefs, most with their recipes in their heads, keep eyes fixed on their heavy pots and sip from blended margaritas in their hands.
For neighbors on a quiet Acampo street and some of their foodie friends, it is an afternoon that only happens once a year: DOG, the eighth annual Dutch Oven Gathering.
The event is hosted by Jerry and Joetta Nelson, who turn their driveway into a covered outdoor kitchen with metal tables, charcoal chimneys and a station with a margarita machine — homemade with an Igloo cooler and garbage disposal motor, courtesy of their handy neighbor Danny Corlett.
With cool air and a sky that teases chefs with plenty of gray clouds, 44 people gather around about 24 Dutch oven stations as one-pot wonders cook by the magic of hot coals. There is a camaraderie between the neighbors as they work and laugh together and enjoy “cooking the way the pioneers did,” they like to say.
“It’s cooking like when you’re camping,” said Brenda Lynskey, as she pours tomatoes into her pasta concoction.
Dutch ovens are nothing new. They are used often in camping because it’s an easy way to cook outside, but they’re also known for traveling west as settlers moved from the East Coast. The flat-bottomed heavy pots, with lids, legs and wire handles are designed to stew, bake, roast or fry foods in one pot over an open fire, though Jerry Nelson says hot coals work best.
The Nelsons cook in Dutch ovens throughout the year. Joetta Nelson grew up with her mom cooking in a Dutch oven and returned to the tradition about 10 years ago. They’ve made blackberry cobbler, cornbread, pineapple upside down cake, brownies, stews and casseroles.
They agree a perk of the Dutch oven is its near inability to burn food, because the cast metal absorbs, retains and distributes heat evenly.
At the back of the row, Larry Hoskins keeps a sharp eye on his pot of chili beans, a recipe he keeps guarded in his memory.
“I’ve got three people who would kill for this recipe. ... This is mancave food,” said Hoskins, who adds that there are about 10 or 12 individual beans in the pot. The rest is meat.
He opens his pot only when he needs to give it a stir or add an ingredient.
A few stations down the way, Amanda Sarisky, a Lodi native and CSU Stanislaus freshman, adds a layer of cheese to her lasagna. It’s the final step as her entree is almost done.
Sarisky has been participating in the cookoff with her family since the tradition began eight years ago.
This year, she and her mother, Robin Sarisky, are also making an apple crumble with apples they gathered during a recent trip to Apple Hill.
She likes the camaraderie of the neighbors and friends as they cook together, but Sarisky also likes the quality and taste food has from being prepared in a Dutch oven.
“Some things get more flavorful ... you get flavor from what you last cooked,” she said.
As the ovens cook over the two hours, children sneak snacks to the donkeys, chefs talk big game and everyone keeps an eye on their coals.
Paul Rowe stands over his own creation of top sirloin in a mushroom sauce that he’ll pour over rice. Brenda Lynskey, too, invented her own recipe of noodles mixed with chopped tomatoes and slivered onions. Pat Corlett gently stirs her pot of stuffed cabbage. At a center station, Dawn “Cookie” Lieginger checks on her pot roast in a dark sauce that is so tender it falls apart. Andy Baumback eyes the amount of red wine he pours into his pot of mushroom, peppers and chicken in a steaming pot of chicken cacciatore.
David Bennett makes a fluffy frittata from his “forty girls,” his chickens. It took him about 40 eggs to fill his 12-inch Dutch oven.
When all the pots are done cooking, they are lined in a center row. The hot lids are pulled off with metal hooks and gloved hands, and the feast is revealed: Chicken soup, chili, eggplant parmesan, teriyaki chicken and rice, enchilada casserole, roasts and meat, vegetables, apple crumble and more.
Everyone has wide plates in hand as they march through the Dutch oven line of pure comfort food. It is time to dig in.
Contact Lodi Living editor Lauren Nelson at email@example.com.