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Around The Bend: Unexpected Places

Jennifer Steedly Duncan
Dec 1, 2012
Photographers: Jennifer Steedly Duncan
As I diced onions in the uncomfortably warm, barely spring sun, with strangers wandering by asking what we were cooking, I wondered yet again how I had gotten myself roped into a Dutch Oven Cook-Off. Four weeks earlier, after meeting up with relatives, we had traveled to the tiny gem of Portal, hidden high in the Chiricahua Mountains on the Arizona-New Mexico border. Portal, one of the Top 10 Birding areas in the U.S., draws diehard birders hoping desperately to see the extremely rare green and red Eared Trogon or the brightly colored Thick-Billed Parrot, a native bird last seen in 1938 and unsuccessfully reintroduced in the 1980s.
Photo 2/9   |   A river runs through it—our first running water in eight weeks
Given that I am not a serious birder, I was easily thrilled to see Mexican Jays and Yellow-Eyed Juncos as well as the opportunistic roadrunner and wild Javelinas scrounging in the shrub along the narrow, twisty road heading into the mountains. Our campsite, tucked into a little valley surrounded by towering peaks, was a delight to the senses. The sound of chattering birds and rushing mountain water filled the air, so different from the quiet stillness of the desert floor.
Snow Falling on Cacti
Advice from experienced winter desert RVers had us keeping well south of I-40 until late spring since we wanted to stay out of heavy snow after our disastrous blizzard experience. In the mountains of the Southwest though, no matter how far south, winter means a chance of snow. Beautiful and elusive, falling in the night and melting as the sun creeps over the mountains, it is the perfect winter snow experience. As Chris swept snow off the solar panels of the bus and his uncle’s fifth-wheeler, I grabbed my camera and three layers of clothes to tiptoe quietly through the snowy woods, taking pictures of snow-covered cacti and raucous, tweeting birds hopping along snowy branches. By mid-morning, the snow was gone and the woods had quieted back down.
Photo 3/9   |   Snow falling on cholla
The few days in the Chiricahuas we had planned on stretched to a laid-back week. As we settled in front of the fire that first night, Chris scanned the Glenwood Gazette, the local paper, for interesting items—local being a relative term, as Glenwood is 80 miles away as the crow flies and at least a two-hour drive. The notice for the upcoming Dutch Oven Cook-Off caught and kept his interest. Chris and his uncle pondered, debated, and schemed about the idea of participating in the cook-off. His aunt and I laughed and said, “You guys go for it,” never dreaming the whole family, plus some, would be roped into participating in the event.
Photo 4/9   |   The Chiricahuas are also called “Little Yosemite”
Reality Check
Putting aside the fact that we had never participated in any kind of cooking event, nor had we ever been to Glenwood, New Mexico, we didn’t really know what was entailed in a cook-off. In the beginning, the biggest hurdle to this event was Uncle Dave’s lack of cooking expertise. Before his recent retirement, his years as a dairy farmer didn’t allow for much time in the kitchen, so the extent of his cooking repertoire included the occasional peanut butter and jelly and reheating coffee.
Photo 5/9   |   The birds! The birds!
As we meandered through southern New Mexico, every night was spent teaching Uncle Dave the finer points of Dutch oven cooking, and cooking in general, as he worked to perfect lemon bars over the fire. In the week before the event, the men decided that it was actually more practical for them to enter as a “three-pot” team— rather than two individuals—making an entrée, a bread, and a dessert. That was how we all were snookered in … ahem, I mean became a part of the cook-off team.
As the sun broke over the horizon the day of the event, we packed up all of our food and equipment and headed out, along with Chris’ dad who, not wanting to miss out on the fun, had driven down from Oregon in his outfitted vintage Vanagon to cheer on the team. The guys had staked out a good spot the night before and by 8:30 a.m. had dug a fire pit, hammered in the beautiful new stakes Uncle Dave had gotten welded locally a few days earlier, and got a fire started. The first order of business was breakfast then hats and sunscreen as the sun was hot and bright. Then it was time to cook. While Uncle Dave prepped his part of the entry, lemon bars, the rest of us worked on handmade corn tortillas, 8-year-old Tucker’s new specialty, and molasses chicken fajitas, Chris’ specialty.
Photo 6/9   |   Sunny Flats
How Many People?
I made up roasted corn salsa while helping Tucker make a massive batch of tortillas. Tucker made close to 100 little tortillas, as we found out at the morning meeting that more than 400 people had bought tickets to eat the contestants’ food after the judging was finished. We really had no idea what we had gotten ourselves into when we entered the 10th annual Glenwood Dutch Oven Cook-Off, a much-anticipated yearly fundraiser for the county park we were in.
Feeling a little pressure now as we watched the continual line of ticket buyers parade before us, our fun lark transformed into something serious. In the end, Tucker was the star of the day. He had decided early in the morning (having no idea how many we would need to do) that, since he had done it before and it was his favorite food, he would be the official tortilla presser. As passing women clucked and cooed over him, the tenacious child pressed and pressed and pressed, not stopping until the job was complete. It was getting hot by this point and none of us had bargained on needing to make that many, but he was determined and two hours later, he grinned proudly at the enormous stack of warm tortillas by the fire. His proud grin was nothing compared to the grin on his mama’s face at his completion of a Herculean task.
Photo 7/9   |   Panning for gold
Exhausted, we delivered the last of our carefully prepared and presented entries to the food runner. We only had a little bit of time to make ourselves some food before one of us had to go serve our entries—yet, another task on the list of things we didn’t know we would have to do that morning. Elected to be the server, I put on a clean apron as we hustled the rest of our food over to the tables. I smiled, laughed, and joked with the parade of people in an effort to disguise my wretched clumsiness as I dished up one hundred of the tiniest fajitas and lemon bars ever seen onto overflowing plates. Try making hors d’oeuvre–sized tortillas, complete with beans, meat, salsa, and guacamole or cutting teeny slices of lemon bar out of a Dutch oven. Now do it quickly, one hundred times.
Photo 8/9   |   “I need a HOT fire for my tortillas!” says Tucker
People fed, ovens cleaned, fire put out, we plopped down around our site, too tired to move. To our delighted surprise, we took third place in the Tenderfoot–Three Pot category, complete with a small cash prize, as well as a gift basket for farthest traveled. That night, as the hot weather broke and the snow flurries started falling (weather in the Southwest is always an adventure), we huddled around the fire back at our wilderness campsite with some well-earned cocktails and concluded that we had done a damn fine job.
Fun aside, I learned something critical in this process: If you have a reluctant male cooker in your midst, there is nothing like a big fire and a little bit of friendly competition to get him motivated. You can have a cocktail while they sweat it out over an open pit. Just be prepared to join the team at the last second as the designated chopper!
Photo 9/9   |   The tortilla master at work

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