Inspired by new, exotic ingredients and a need for simple, hearty fare, the people who settled this country developed a unique style of cooking as they moved ever westward.
These vigorous folk moved West for myriad reasons: to conquer untamed territory, to seek their fortunes in gold, to farm, to herd cattle or sheep. Linking them to one another--and to generations before and to come--was the longing for adventure. Theirs was a rugged lifestyle that led to distinctly Western traditions and food ways. Cooking was all the more extraordinary because there were no stoves, only campfires and cast iron.
Generation upon generation crossed the Rockies, the Sierra Nevadas and the Cascades. First to come were the Spanish conquistadors. Then came trappers and fur traders, gold miners and cattle ranchers. Basque sheepherders followed, attracted by the similarity of this region to their homeland, the mountains between France and Spain. Finally, farmers arrived, bringing families and a new civility.
Piled into their small wagons were a few pieces of spare clothing, guns and ammunition, and a small treasure or two to remind them of the homes they'd left behind. These were tucked around their staples: sourdough, flour, coffee, tinned tomatoes, salt pork, dried beans, salt, sugar, molasses and lard. Hanging from the back of the carts--the ubiquitous sign of the West--were their cast-iron kettles.
As they struggled to make the wild land their own, they learned secrets of survival from Native Americans. Arid expanses were whipped relentlessly by mighty winds, yet the settlers discovered that the soil, so barren in appearance, yielded edible wild plants and berries.
They also learned new methods of growing foods familiar to them. With these ingredients, they made the boiled meals typical of the Native American diet--stews and cornmeal puddings, succotash and hominy--all of which adapted well to their cast-iron cookware.
As soon as the winter snows melted, food crops were planted and the hunting became bountiful. There were buffalo, antelope, wild turkey, rattlesnake, bear, elk, moose and fish. Western cooks experimented until they found ways to combine new foods with their staples in dishes that reminded them of the foods they'd known before: spicy Spanish stews, French pots-au-feu, English-roasted meats and sweets from wild berries and nuts.
With practice, the settlers found they could prepare nearly any dish for which they hungered. In the heavy vessels they could fry, bake, boil or poach their food. They baked sourdough bread, biscuits and hot cakes. For times of feasting and celebration, they made fruit pastries, layer cakes and doughnuts.
All were made in the iron caldrons. And as the decades passed, there remained little ethnic distinction in their foods because settlers had shared, adapted and altered their recipes so often.
Though cast-iron cookware reached a pinnacle of popularity during the settlement of the West, its history goes back centuries. As early as 1500, in fact, cast iron was essential cooking equipment in Europe's royal kitchens. Nearly 200 years later, ironware was in common use throughout Europe. English exporters were responsible for supplying most of the Old World and the American colonies with cast-iron kettles, pots, skillets and other cookware.
It is said that Columbus had cast-iron cookware on his ship when he discovered the New World. However, Paul Revere is credited with the design of the pot that became known as the Dutch oven. It had a flat lid with a turned-up lip to hold coals (to provide heat on top of a food, simulating an oven's environment). The pot itself stood on three short legs so it could be settled evenly over a slow-burning fire.
The oven was named for 18th-Century itinerant peddlers--many of them of Dutch descent--who sold pots and pans from the backs of their wagons. These peddlers were eagerly awaited. Many households had several of their ovens in various sizes; not only could colonists use them for cooking and baking, they could make soap, boil laundry and dye fabrics in them.
Because Dutch ovens were virtually indestructible and infinitely versatile, they were considered essential survival equipment on almost every exploration into new territory. Camp cooks on cattle drives used them; Lewis and Clark carried cast-iron kettles on their 1804 expedition to the Pacific Northwest; and gold miners not only cooked dinner in their Dutch ovens, they used them to pan for gold.
Recently, new attention has been given to Dutch-oven cooking and the part it played in the settlement of the West. A longtime Dutch-oven cook in Logan, Utah, is responsible for at least some of the renewed interest. Dick Michaud, who wanted to share both his enthusiasm for this old-fashioned cooking and his love of the West's history, helped establish a Dutch-oven cooking contest in his northern Utah community five years ago.