This year’s Alaska State Championship Dutch Oven Cooking Contest to be held during Progress Days is going to be a little different.
First off, former Soldotna Mayor Nels Anderson and his wife Carla, the couple who many saw as the glue of the competition, currently live in Africa, and are not around to motivate and train potential and committed contenders.
“It is some big shoes to fill though, I will say that,” said Andy Rash, events coordinator at the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce, which has assumed many of the Andersons’ duties.
They did leave behind a stash of the cast iron pots for competitors, and a few friends who have taken over operations. Stan Stedman helped the Andersons ensure the competitions ran smoothly in the past by providing assistance to those cooking.
A change he was more apt to include this year is a question and answer period, where bystanders will be allowed to talk to the chefs and receive demonstrations on the intricacies of working with a Dutch oven.
“We will cook something very basic and very simple and the purpose will not be to ‘wow’ them with a dish,” Stedman said. “It will just be so that they can see the process and be able to ask questions.”
Sally Oelrich, who has entered the adult competition with her husband, Rick Oelrich, in recent years said interactions with the audience is what keeps her coming back. She said, like many past competitors, the Andersons, coerced her and her husband into participating.
She said Nels had been trying for years prior to start up a chapter of the International Dutch Oven Society in Soldotna, and finally formed the Last Frontier Dutch Oven group with the help of some interested, albeit noncompetitive, members.
“We do it because we enjoy it,” Oelrich said. “We’ve cooked with Dutch ovens in cook-offs like this before, which is competitive, but my favorite way to do it is every time we go down the Swanson (River) and cook dinner.”
Nels originally brought the cooking contest to Progress Days so that the winner could participate in the International Dutch Oven Society’s World Championship Cook Off. Carla Anderson competed multiple times at the competition after winning twice locally.
Whoever takes the title this year will be invited to the world competition in Utah, Stedman said.
Andy Rash, events coordinator for the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce, said anyone could compete regardless of skill level or ambitions.
“It is a fun event,” Rash said. “ If people want to win, they are serious about it. If people want to do it for the fun that is very much encouraged.”
Novices are also welcome to join in, Rash said. Cooking without gas or electricity was practice familiar many of the area’s early homesteaders, and is an excellent skill set to learn, he said.
Stedman said the rules may be a little more flexible for first-timers. While the Andersons usually offered crash courses and classes year-round at their Soldotna home for Dutch oven cookers, Stedman and Oelrich both said they would be happy to help out anyone looking to brush up, learn or refine skills before the competition next week.
Oelrich said learning the basics is pretty easy. As knowledge progresses, taking into account external factors like wind, and cold or warm days that may affect the temperature of the coals used and how fast they may burn out are a few things that may make cooking easier, she said.
The cooking contest has three separate competitions for adults, juniors, children ages 12-17 and “minis,” children ages 6-11. Juniors and minis will be asked to make one main dish and one dessert, and adults will do the same and bake a bread item as well.
Recipes are due and approved when participants register for the event, Stedman said.
“One thing really comes out is that this is an opportunity to be creative, people really do get creative with their recipes and do have fun with it that way,” he said.
Anyone can sign up until the date of the event, Rash said. Stedman, Oelrich and Rash all agreed the more the merrier, and there is no limit to how many people can join.
For more information contact Andy Rash at 262-9814, Stan Stedman at 953-8244 or Sally and Rick Oelrich at 262-6637.
Reach Kelly Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org.