Cooking the Old, Old-Fashioned Way

Regular readers know I’ve been reading old-time Westerns the last couple of weeks. As in most novels I’m always curious about what the people in the story are eating. As I was reading The Day the Cowboys Quit (my review at Quirky Girls Read), I noticed the chuck-wagon cook had his iron pot out making a pot of beans for the cowboys, along with some sourdough biscuits.

That chuck-wagon cook’s iron pot reminded me that I haven’t shared with you my experiences with our iron pot – our Dutch Oven. We bought our three-legged oven over forty years ago to use while camping.

Those were the days when campers could dig their own fire pits and could easily gather wood from the forests. The standard fare for at least one meal on a camp-out was Bean-Hole Beans. For some reason the men in our camping parties always loved this dish and the ritual that went with it. Here’s how we did it and probably how the cowboys did it too:

First you have to dig a good sized hole that’s about twice the depth of your dutch oven. It should be round enough for the oven plus room for coals.

Second, you need to build a good enough wood fire. (Although I’m sure the chuck-wagon cooks used cow chips.) The wood needs to be burned down enough so it is all hot coals. You’ll need enough coals to surround the dutch oven.

Third: Prepare the beans. Take a couple pounds of beans (any dried bean will do) and the water that you have been soaking them in (at least half a day). Pour them into the dutch oven. Add about half a cup of molasses, a cup or so of brown sugar, half a pound of cut up bacon or a couple of ham hocks and two or three chopped onions. [These are the basic ingredients. Every cook adds their own touches such as garlic or green, red, or hot peppers, tomatoes, and so forth.]

Stir all the ingredients real good and then cover it tight with a couple of layers of heavy-duty aluminum foil. Then put the lid on the dutch oven so it’s also tight.

Now you’re ready to start baking the beans. In the bottom of the hole put a good layer of hot coals. The legs on the dutch oven will let it sit right on top of those hot coals, so  it’s okay to put the dutch oven, now full of beans, right on top of the coals. Put more hot coals around the sides of the dutch oven and then on the top. The dutch oven should now be completely surrounded by the hot coals.

Next, carefully shovel a layer of dirt over the top. The dirt will insulate the hot coals and keep the low fire going. Do not fuss with it.

Go fishing, hiking or whatever, and come back in about 10 to 12 hours. Dig out your pot of beans and eat. If you’ve been camping outdoors for several days and have built up a hearty appetite, these beans taste as good as a gourmet treat. It never fails to impress children and new campers.

For us, making Bean-Hole Beans and other dutch oven specialties was part of the fun of campiing. We knew we would soon go back to our quick-heating stoves and our refrigerators. We’d  be able to quickly cook up anything we wanted. But these experiences gave us and our children an appreciation for the ways our ancestors had to work hard for the simple food they were able to make.

If this post sparks an interest in dutch oven cooking, I’d like to recommend a good resource: The Complete Book of Dutch Oven Cooking by J. Wayne Fears. (It’s available at Amazon.) Half the book is a great primer on buying and caring for a good dutch oven. The other half is filled with recipes including Bean Hole Beans.

As I do every Saturday, this post is linked to Weekend Cooking at Beth Fish Reads. It’s a great collection of posts about food by other bloggers. Click the button below.

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21 Responses to Cooking the Old, Old-Fashioned Way

  1. kaye says:

    Interesting and very entertainig post,Margot! I’m sure kids today don’t even appreciate how we cook never mind how food was prepared 100 years ago or so.

  2. Barbara says:

    When I lived in Maine in the 1970s, my village had a festival every summer and the main feature was bean hole beans. They dug the hole and baked them on the village green, and everyone also baked goodies to sell because many tourists came. Personally, I’ve been cooking in a dutch oven for many many years.

  3. That sounds very fun. I love the idea of cooking in a hole buried in the gorund!

  4. Fascinating! I’ve never cooked with a Dutch Oven – hadn’t heard of it, actualy, but it reminded me of when I used to go camping with the Girl Guides and we cooked on an open fire and also using a hay-box.

  5. candice says:

    ahhh, dutch oven cooking! This does truly amaze kids & new campers. I fondly remember when we used the dutch oven on our last adventure with you & dad to Mt St Helen’s and we made chili, but I think we used it on top of the fire without the lid… Also, I remember some very yummy dutch oven “pie/cake” concoction from when I was little. Do you? Love your posts and how they are all centered around the Western theme.

  6. Beth F says:

    What a great resource — I’m going to have to track down this book. We camp (or used to) quite a bit, but we’ve also cooked over the fireplace with fair success. I wish I need more about cooking in the fireplace, so I need to check out Dutch Oven Cooking.

    We even made a pie once in a dutch oven — a little dark on one side but we loved it all the same!

  7. Kate says:

    This sounds great, not just the food but the *process* – really neat. We usually do all of our cooking over the fire when we camp, but this sounds too fun and interesting to pass up. I’ll have to see if any of our camping co-horts have a Dutch over. Thanks for the post!

  8. It’s the original slow cooker crock pot? It sounds very good! I’d have no place here to cook that way, we’ve never camped, but I do have a cast iron dutch oven that does so well on low heat in the oven!

  9. Amused says:

    Holy crap I had no idea you could do that! So cool!

  10. Heather says:

    Carol, I was thinking the same thing. Slow cooking. Great post.

  11. JoAnn says:

    I’ve never heard of this – very cool!
    Also wanted to tell you I tried the oatmeal cookie recipe this week, and it really is the best! Simmering the raisins makes a huge difference.

  12. stacybuckeye says:

    I went camping a few times as a kid but never used a Dutch oven. You’ve made me hungry (and I just started Weight Watchers, thanks Margot) .

  13. TheBookGirl says:

    We don’t go camping, but I was very interested to read this post. I didn’t know that you could cook like this 🙂

  14. Oh, this is my kind of cooking. We are campers and love to cok over the fire and cast iron dutch oven is our number one cooking pot!

  15. Alex Baugh says:

    I like using a dutch oven at home, but had never tried one camping back in my camping day. I bet it makes things taste wonderful, though.

  16. Staci says:

    Makes me nostalgic for the days when we went camping as a kid and you played so hard that dinner no matter what it was tasted like heaven!!! Loved this post!

  17. It sounds like a great way to cook, but I have to admit that I’m not one for camping.

  18. Is that photo from one of your camping trips?!

    My kids would love to cook over a fire, but I’m afraid s’mores are about as adventurous as I’ll get these days (yes, I was a Girl Scout and did all that fun stuff years ago) 🙂

  19. Cerrin says:

    I remember the “Dump Cake” Ahhh all the yummy cake with the fruit. That was my favorite. Smores too heh but that is not in a dutch oven. But I always loved the camping cooking just not the cleaning. lol

  20. We always camped with our kids and cooked on campstoves and with Dutch Ovens — and when the boys were in Scouts Bill taught that skill. That was fun; many of the kids had never really eaten much but fast food meals. I hope some of them remember how they did it. I know our kids do.

  21. Louise says:

    My aunt was a reverent user of the dutch oven. I never really got into it myself just because I don’t own one, but they’re awesome.

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