As we enter the pulsing heart of football season, I recall that Yale, Princeton and Rutgers each claim ownership of the first tailgate, which took place in the late 1800s or early 1900s.
But Western settlers may have had them all beat for outdoor event cooking. Lewis and Clark, on their 1804-1806 expedition, left cast-iron Dutch ovens scattered in their wake like PBR cans after an overtime win.
And those barrels on the backs of covered wagons they werent full of water; they held vinegar and preserved meat. This is sure evidence that eastern North Carolina-style barbecue was preferred by nine out of 10 hardy pioneers.
I learned such fun facts recently as I watched members of the International Dutch Oven Society prepare a meal in the groups favorite vessels. There were cakes, pies, breads, meats, potatoes all cooked in the cast-iron pots using charcoal briquets or propane cookers for the Association of Food Journalists conference in Park City, Utah.
My first thought: This would make an awesome tailgate.
Members of the Utah-based IDOS told me that football fans at the University of Utah and Brigham Young University regularly bring out their Dutch ovens for tailgating. They asked me: Why shouldnt everyone? But then, they are as dedicated to their cast-iron pots as North Carolinians are to rolling pig cookers.
This is a way of life for me. My great-grandparents brought cast-iron pots here. My mom cooked with them, said IDOS member Colleen Sloan, who looked like she could be an extra in a Clint Eastwood western. She held up a bean pot made in 1707 and said, This came here with the pioneers.
Dutch ovens are able to function like pressure cookers, and theyre the ancestors of slow-cookers, Sloan said.
They also have many prime tailgating qualities: They can cook food fairly fast, they involve fire and fun-to-tinker-with processes, and they feature quirky special equipment. The only thing missing is school colors. (Never use enameled cast iron outdoors, IDOS folks said, because the high heat causes the paint to burn and flake off.)
Among the lunch goodies, pork tenderloin was ready in less than an hour and bone-in chicken pieces were prepared in less than two.
Matt Pelton of Provo, who cooked two moist and well-seasoned pork tenderloins in the time it takes some tailgaters to find the hot dog buns, is the author of three cookbooks and an IDOS world cooking champion. Yes, of course there are Dutch oven cooking competitions, which is just one more thing that makes the vessel tailgate-worthy. Tailgate cooks love to prove theyre the best.
Pelton rubbed the tenderloins with a blend from his seasoning company, Mountain Chef, but other seasoning blends might work also. The seasoned meat should rest, ideally for 10 to 15 minutes. Then he seared the meat quickly on all sides in a heated Dutch oven with a small amount of oil.
To make the process easier for the tailgate, the pork can be seasoned and seared at home, then finished on site, he said.
The key to Dutch-oven cooking is arranging the briquets to heat the pot, Pelton explained. The pot has small legs and a rimmed lid, both of which allow preheated charcoal briquets to heat the pot. Use a charcoal chimney to prepare the coals first.
He arranged the heated briquets in a checkerboard pattern under the bottom of the pot, leaving at least an inch of space between the coals. Obviously, youll need strong tongs and fire-resistant gloves for this, along with a fireproof surface beneath the Dutch oven and coals. Pelton uses a piece of sheet metal.
Pelton placed a rack, such as a cake rack, in the bottom of the Dutch oven to keep the meat from touching the bottom and overcooking. He added a little vegetable oil to the bottom to prevent drippings from burning, brushed the meat with raspberry-jalapeno jelly from a jar (Im thinking Southern pepper jelly would be good) and placed it on the rack. Then, on with the lid and hot briquets placed about an inch apart along the edge, allowing the lids raised rim to keep them in place.
He cooked the tenderloins to 145 degrees on an instant-read thermometer (another Dutch-oven-cooking essential). The temperature rose to 155 degrees after the meat was removed and allowed to rest briefly before serving.
Start to finish, the dish takes less than an hour, so I think thats very doable for a tailgate-type meal, Pelton said.
So, at your next tailgate, think about showing em whos the real Iron Chef.
For information on IDOS and local chapters, visit idos.org.