Thursday, December 22, 2011

The History of the Dutch Oven

It's been exciting to see the progress that the publishing company has been making toward the release of the book.  I've learned a lot about how that works, and I can see why it takes so long!  My first book, to be titled, "The Best of the Black Pot" will be coming out in March!

I've been working hard on the second book, tentatively titled, "Learning to Cook in the Black Pot".  Here's an article (interesting, I hope) that I've excerpted from that manuscript.  Just a taste of things to come!



The History of the Dutch Oven

Much of what has been written about Dutch oven history is apocryphal, or at least legendary.  By that, I mean that many writers quote and cite each other as they go through the timeline.  I’m not going to be any different, honestly.  The important thing is not so much the dates, but to get an overall picture of the Dutch oven’s place in history, and to feel some connection to that as you cook. 

Well, really, when you think about it, you could cook just fine it the oven and never know that it even existed before a month ago, right?  But the more that you learn about its background and its life, the more it makes sense.  I find myself reading something and saying, “Oh!  THAT’s why they did it that way!”


Pre-History

After the stone age, people started hammering copper into shapes, and then, discovered that it could be blended with tin to make a whole new age, made out of bronze.  Pretty soon, they were heating and hammering iron out of the rocks and in the 11th century BC, they learned how to make things with wrought iron, and crude steels.

Then, in 513 BC, the Chinese discovered how to make a furnace hot enough to actually melt the iron down, and casting iron began.  Clever of those guys.  The Europeans didn’t figure that until about the 11th century AFTER Christ.  They may be slow, but they get there.

Cast iron pots and cauldrons were used to cook after that, and were even mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays (Like being used by the witches in MacBeth).

Late 1600’s

By this time, the Dutch had a pretty sweet system of making molds out of sand, and were putting out some good pots, pans, and other cast iron things.  These were, of course, being exported all over, particularly in England.  This is one of the theories behind why they are called “Dutch ovens” today.

Another theory is that the Dutch traveling traders spread the pots far and wide, and so people referred to them as “Dutch ovens”.

1700’s

In 1704, an Englishman named went to The Netherlands to study their casting techniques.  He brought those skills back to England, worked on them some more, and got an English patent.  He began producing the cookware and distributing them in England and also in the colonies in America.  In Ireland, as well as other places, they were made with small points hanging from the underside of the lid.  As meats roasted, the steam would gather and drip down these points, giving the pot the name “bastible”.

In America, their practicality and versatility caught on very quickly.  They were perfect for hearth cooking, which is where almost all cheffery happened in homes.  They could roast meats, boil soups, and be used to bake breads and cakes.

Adjustments and improvements came in America, too, including the legs and lip around the lid to keep the ashes out of the food.  Paul Revere is credited with coming up with the idea for the lip, but I have never seen any mention of any real evidence of that fact.  It makes a good story, though.

Another theory about the name came from the fact that the ovens had been also brought over with Dutch immigrants who had settled in Pennsylvania.

In these days, cast iron cookware were considered to be very valuable, and, since they were also very durable, would be passed down from generation to generation.  George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, specified in her will how her “iron kitchen furniture” would be divided after her death.

1800’s

In the early 1800’s, the United States was growing, and it was here that the Dutch oven truly became an American icon.  Lewis and Clark took Dutch ovens on their famous expedition to explore the Louisiana Purchase. 

As the Pioneers moved west, in the Mormon migration as well, Dutch ovens crossed the plains with them.  On my mother’s side, there were several of these undefeatable souls who walked pushing handcarts all the way from Winter Quarters, on the east of Nebraska, to the Salt Lake valley, cooking their nightly meals in their Dutch ovens, fueled by burning dried buffalo manure.

I’ve read accounts where the wives would mix the bread dough in the morning, and put it in the Dutch ovens, and then in the carts, and by evening it would have risen and be ready to bake.

In the later 1800s, Dutch ovens were also vital parts of the the chuck wagons on the famous cattle drives of the west.

1900’s

In the 1900’s, as the technology and affordability of indoor stoves and ranges increased, Dutch ovens fell out of use.  Cast iron was still popular, particularly the skillets.  Dutch ovens lost their legs, and became more of the range-top and roaster pots as they are popular now.

Still, Dutch ovens remained popular among campers, hunters, hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts.

In 1985 the International Dutch Oven Society was formed, in Utah, “...with the goals to preserve and promote the skills and art of Dutch Oven cooking. From it's humble beginnings in the Rocky Mountains, IDOS has grown to its current status as the largest and most productive group of black pot enthusiasts in the world.”

2000 +

Dutch ovening as a hobby continues to grow.  A few adjustments to the traditional designs have been coming on in the last few years, even since the 1990s, including the “Ultimate Dutch Oven”, currently manufactured by Camp Chef, which features a hollow cone in the center of the oven to allow hot air to enter, convection style. Many Camp Chef ovens also include a small hole in the lip of the lid for the insertion of thermometers or thermometer leads.  Maca makes big, deep dutch ovens, many shaped in ovals to better accommodate large turkeys.

...And on a personal note, it was in 2007 that I first began blogging about my Dutch oven cooking experiences!

I find it interesting to reflect on the changes.  Now, we have glass-top ranges, microwave ovens, convection ovens, stoves that clean themselves, automatic timers, table top grills, panini makers, and a million other modern ways to cook.  A Dutch oven is delicious, nutritious, and wonderful.  But it’s not always the quickest or the easiest way to cook.  I cook in Dutch ovens because it’s my hobby and because it’s fun.  We have contests and parties that celebrate Dutch oven cooking.  In the back of my head, though, I keep the haunting thought: my ancestors used it to feed their families on a daily basis.

Over the years, the Dutch oven has developed into the thing that it is for very practical reasons: it worked.




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Mark has discovered a love of Dutch Oven Cooking. Mark also has other sites and blogs, including MarkHansenMusic.com and his MoBoy blog.

1 comment:

  1. Mark
    I certainly enjoyed your blog on the dutch oven. This term really took me back to my childhood with my grandmother and mom. It was considered the original pressure cooker in the oven. It was used as well on top of the oven. Large portions for a large family. I've never used it as was originally intended, in the hot coals, outside. This is relevant for the times we now find ourselves. It may be your hobby, but it could be survival with the doom and gloom predictions that abound. Food for thought!

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