When photographer Randy Russell and I canoed the length of the Cumberland in 2003, we had cooking wars each evening after paddling our 20-odd miles. I favored the macaroni and cheese based dinner with tuna or chicken from those foil packages. I mixed in canned mushrooms, black olives, and Rotel tomato sauce in a pot and heated it up. Hot sauce de rigeur. He favored a rice base, as I recall, and sometimes resorted to the pre-packaged dehydrated dinners, which required the intricate process of boiling water. It was all about convenience and bold flavors, aesthetics and presentation irrelevant. We joked about writing a Cumberland cookbook with an emphasis on weight loss.
Despite my lack of qualifications, this past Thursday, May 12, I had the honor of serving as a judge in the second annual One Pot Cookoff at the Little River Trading Company in Maryville. The other judges were Amy Campbell, host of Tennessee Farm Table on WDVX; and Christopher Snyder, founder of Bluetick Brewery and formerly a chef at Blackberry Farm.
All of us—contestants, judges, and Little River staff—gathered around the Switchback Craft Beer Tavern bar in anticipation of meals suitable for backcountry consumption.
The rules for the cookoff were tough. You had to use a stove you would take camping, you had to cook all food on site, and there was a short list of utensils you could bring, including one knife, one cutting board, one plate, one spatula, one bowl, and so on, just as if you were lugging all this stuff in a backpack up the side of a mountain. Plus, you had to have it ready in 30 minutes.
Jaia McClure, the organizer of the event, told the contestants to start their camp stoves.
As judges, we milled around and watched preparations. Julian Adams, a 12-year-old Boy Scout, began chopping carrots for his beef stew. Next to him, Ed Zubko poured a cup or so of white, cheesy liquid into his skillet and watched it bubble on low heat while Campbell pumped him for information. At the other end of the bar, Dan Howett began his pizza in a pot by preparing couscous, his version of a crust. His parents, next to him, cheered him on. Adams’ parents were there too, but they kept their distance from the boy, who seemed more serious and intent than his competitors.
Not that Zubka and Howett were there just for kicks. Before the clock began ticking, Zubka, who would soon be off to Fontana Lake for camping and walleye fishing, said, “I’m gonna win this thing.” This was not idle chatter. He won the competition last year with something he called an “inside-out omelet.”
After a while, Zubka’s quesadilla and Adams’ beef stew began to compete for best aroma. By this time the Boy Scout had chopped up a red onion and garlic cloves, and Zubka had flipped his quesadilla so that the lightly crisped side emitted a redolent steam. His stove was an MSR Dragonfly, which, he said, enabled you “to simmer all day or turn it up to melt the bottom out of your pot.”
McClure served us the samples in paper containers about half the size of a Dixie cup, and she made sure we didn’t linger too long on one of the dishes. We had to eat, assess and fill out these forms with numerical ratings for taste, creativity, presentation, simplicity/backcountry-able, with extra credit for a beer pairing.
The quesadilla was first. It was crusty and delicious, as I recall, but I could not help thinking that it looked like an omelet in the pan while Zubka was cooking it, not a mark against it, just disconcerting. None of the dishes looked good in the paper cup, but in the pan, Zubka’s, a yellow, sizzling crescent, looked like something that would make you happy after a long sweaty day on the trail. On my left, Judge Snyder didn’t say a word until he prodded McClure to bring us the beer samples. A veteran judge of cooking contests, he was focused on the cuisine. I had to fight myself not to sneak a look at his forms.
The pizza in a pot was amazingly good, though it helped that couscous and pepperoni are two of my favorite foods. Howett did not scrimp on the pepperoni, earning him taste points. His dish, like Zubka’s, looked fairly easy to prepare, his ingredients in small, easy-to-open packaging. He did chop the string cheese up before adding it in. He provided his complete recipe and noted that before excursions, he boils sausage and takes it along for the pizza: “It’s safe to eat for three days deep into the backcountry,” he said.
Adams’ stew tasted the best to me, and as camp food, it would provide the most comfort, with the mixture of broth, ramen noodles, and tender chunks of beef at the bottom of the cup like little nuggets of reward. The garlic added some punch and the carrots were cooked to perfection, not too soft, their crispness adding texture to the broth and soft noodles.
At the same time, the fresh vegetables and all the chopping would mean quite a bit of labor for some tired camper, and I knew from taking long canoe trips that fresh vegetables didn’t stay fresh long without a cooler and ice. Uncooked meat presented the same problem; either you had to pre-cook, kill something, or come upon a grocery store in the wilderness.
I felt a little anxious because my score sheet criteria were evening out each contestant, and Snyder and Campbell seemed really confident as they worked. Campbell was writing a novel in the “comments” section of each form.
McClure prefaced her announcement of the winners by commenting on how close it had been, only a point or two separating the three of them. Howett’s pizza in a pot won third prize, Adams’ beef stew second, and Zubka won first with his quesadilla, starting a cooking dynasty with his second win in a row.
Adams came up to each of us judges at the end of the evening, shook our hands, and thanked us for our participation.
Randy Russell and I found out on the Cumberland trip that the best food was given to us: fried chicken, green beans, and new potatoes at Defeated Creek Campground in Trousdale County, Tennessee; the best hot dogs I’ve ever tasted (and coldest beer) handed down to us from a cabin cruiser on Old Hickory Lake. That’s how I felt about being a judge and watching these cooks labor over camp stoves; give me food and I’ll eat it. Conceiving a dish and preparing it in 30 minutes on a camp stove? Impressive work.
Kim Trevathan will teach an outdoor writing workshop on May 21, from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. at Central United Methodist Church (201 E. Third Ave.). Info: knoxvillewritersguild.org.
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