Photo by Kelly Sullivan/ Peninsula Clarion Nels Anderson pours out ready-to-go coals Thursday, July 16, 2015, in Soldotna, Alaska.

Photo by Kelly Sullivan/ Peninsula Clarion Nels Anderson pours out ready-to-go coals Thursday, July 16, 2015, in Soldotna, Alaska.

Progress Days: Dutch oven competition heats up

Carla and Nels Anderson stooped over two tarnished cylinders set on a Dutch oven stand, and filled to the brim with smoking, hot coals on a recent evening.

The couple briefly debated the readiness of the piles.

“They will be ready in five minutes,” Nels Anderson said.

The prepped charcoal is all the three pairs of cooks, practicing in the Andersons’ kitchen for the annual Alaska State Championship Dutch Oven Cooking Contest to be held during Progress Days, had to finish off their baked goods.

Carla Anderson was paired up with grandson Cameron, who “really wants to” compete in the competition Saturday. It was his first time cooking with the massive cast iron, lidded pots, but luckily Carla Anderson is a seasoned professional.

The Andersons have placed in the International Dutch Oven Society’s World Championship Cook Off, with Carla coming in fourth this year with her partner, and daughter in-law Allison Anderson.

Altogether, the Anderson’s have nearly 20 Dutch ovens, gathered and stocked throughout the years to lend out and utilize for large meals. Nels Anderson said he knew of another competitor in Alaska who has roughly 50 cookers.

While neither are contenders in the 2015 competition in Soldotna, they are integral players in the organization of the event, as they have been since bringing the event to the Kenai Peninsula more than five years ago.

The two are traveling to West Africa, most likely in January, Carla Anderson said, for more than one year. She said she hopes some of her other local, fellow enthusiasts will take over running the competition when they are gone. She recalls teaching local Boy Scout troops, as well as church and youth groups, among many others, throughout the years.

As pots clacked and clanged in the galley, Carla Anderson wandered from duo to duo checking in and offering tips and tidbits. This year the couple has been traveling and was not able to offer the usual number of crash courses to Progress Days competitors.

“You can learn the basics pretty quickly,” Carla Anderson said. “Not knowing how to fine tune and keep things from burning or being too raw is the hard part.”

Carla Anderson warned burnt food items are more common, because competitors usually get anxious and overzealous with their coals. The championship has three tiers for “minis,” youth and adults. The adults must cook a main dish, dessert and bread within five hours, and youth and mini competitors finish a dessert and bread within three hours.

“Can we cheat and use the microwave?” joked Cheryl Walsh, daughter-in-law Carol Walsh’s stand-in partner for the evening.

Carol Walsh works with Nels Anderson at his family practice in Soldotna, and has been avoiding the encouragement to enter the championship he has been offering, unsolicited, for years, she said.

“Nels said pick the hardest recipe,” Carol Walsh said in the kitchen. “He said ‘harder the recipe, the more you are going to learn,’ basically.”

The Walshes were working on cinnamon rolls, a tasty, but challenging dish for beginners.

Back on the porch, out of the rain, Carla Anderson joking scolded her husband for the “bad advice.” If a simpler recipe is done right, it is a stronger entry than a more challenging recipe done poorly, she said.

“You also have to go with the flow,” Carla Anderson advised her short-term students. “Sometimes you get ahead in some places and some behind. One time we forgot one ingredient.”

The unexpected can also get thrown in, Carla Anderson said. The wind can pick up and heat up the coals, but will ultimately burn them out faster, she said.

The hardest part of competing is getting past nerves, Carla Anderson said. Cheryl Walsh asked Carla Anderson about getting the timing down, watched the experienced cook whip out a thick, blue folder. Inside were laminated pages with lists of ingredients, duties and the times steps should be completed throughout a competition.

“It is kind of stressful to get all of that done, but the point is to have fun and learn from the people around you,” Nels Anderson said.

Reach Kelly Sullivan at

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