County fair time rolled through the calendar again, which meant many things to many people. For most, it was 4-H projects — for some, it was about carnival rides and cotton candy — while others saw something cooking on the fair schedules ... literally.
On an annual basis, a number of Colorado county fairs offer Dutch Oven cooking contests to spice up their offerings, as well as serve up a taste of old fashioned, country-style living. For the last number of years, Nikki and Brian Lowns of Elizabeth, Colo., have been organizing these culinary contests as a way to keep the heritage of our past in close proximity to the present.
“Brian and I took this over from the previous organization because we could not stand the idea of the cook offs no longer existing,” stated Nikki Lowns about how she and her husband began coordinating the contests. “Not only do we cook because we love it, it is about keeping the western heritage alive. (We) grew up in ranching families (and) heard stories from older family members about pushing cattle down the trail and the chuck wagon cook whose food could not be beat. Our cook off teams can show people how life on the trail existed 100-plus years ago.”
The dutch oven contests consist of anywhere from seven to 10 teams of cooks serving up vittles in categories like breads, appetizers, main dishes and desserts. Not all of them are of the cowpoke variety, either. Quite a few dishes over the years have been downright gourmet in quality. Including focacia bread, tomato bisque soup, beef tenderloin pepper steaks in a brandy cream sauce, prime rib with horseradish sauce, fuzzy navel cake or even cherry cheesecake; the offerings can be as intricate or as simple as each cook wishes. And they all taste just pretty good, too.
“Many of our teams love cooking in cast iron and will cook at many different fairs in our circuit,” added Lowns. “You can see the love and passion they have for dutch oven cooking.”
While winning prizes and bragging rights in each category is a well-deserved bonus for a cook off participant, the main draw for the contest is good times provided by a heaping dose of camaraderie.
“I don’t really care if I place or not, I just like cooking,” said Dave Link of Elbert, Colo., during a contest in 2010. “Winning is just a bonus. We enjoy cooking and we enjoy hanging out with the people.”
“I like the camaraderie and the community feel,” agreed Mark Moore of Parker, Colo., a western history buff who embraces the heritage in the contests, along with his crew of like-minded buddies who join his chuckwagon on a regular basis. “It’s not commercialized, it’s good healthy competition (and) we all help each other,” Moore added. “Nobody gets too worked up about the rules. We’re here for fun.”
“It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun,” chipped in Brian Lowns about one of the reasons he enjoys the contests. “There is big trash talking ever year. You just have a good time and that’s what it’s all about.”
While the prizes aren’t enough to make anyone retire, they do add excitement to the competition. Organizers truly appreciate sponsors like the John Jolly family, Lodge, IREA, Douglas County Fair Board, KC Electric, Janice Hrbaty, CPA and The Fence Post magazine, who donate cash, services and/or publicity that help create a winning atmosphere for everyone involved.
“We love our sponsors, both past and present,” acknowledged Nikki Lowns. “We rely on donations from sponsors to provide cash prizes each year. I would like to also add that with John Jolly and his entire family, who are our biggest supporters, these cook offs would not be what they are today.”
Due to drought conditions forcing fire restrictions throughout the state, the dutch oven cook off contests were limited to about half their regular circuit of events in 2012. When moisture conditions improve in the future, however, they’ll be back in force and ready for new people interested in adding fellowship around the cook fires and charcoals, as well as carrying on the legacy of traditional cooking.
“There is more to cooking than restaurants and microwaves,” added Lowns about the cook offs, before summing up. “We always welcome new cooks!” ❖