4th Annual Black Pot Cook-Off & Cowboy Poetry in Clovis
Story by Ben Ralph
The Valley has a history. For some, this history is related to a long, arduous journey in which their ancestors crossed oceans, mountains and deserts in hopes of a new life. For some, this is related to a more recent Quixotic quest of journeying from the mean streets of Iowa to live the California fashion dream of bleached blonde hair and surfboards. But before there was the oft-stereotyped coastal culture in California, there were cowboys, cattle drives and rodeos. This is the history of the Valley, and beginning in April, this history is the centerpiece of a train of events beginning with a cookoff and culminating in the Clovis Rodeo. Cowboys can handle the bulls and blood and dust and mud, but they still gotta eat.
To whet the appetites of those hungry for Western history and culture, Old Town Clovis will be the stage for the fourth annual Black Pot Cook-off & Cowboy Poetry, sponsored by the Business Organization of Old Town. On April 17, amateur chefs will bring their smiles, their charm, their culinary skills and, true to the name, their black pot (also known as a Dutch oven) to prepare their best dishes in hopes of winning the favor of the judges and the crowd. Starting at 9am, teams of chefs will set up their stations and get their fires going. Time is a factor, as all entries must be ready for judging by 1pm. This may seem like a non-issue when viewed from the lens of modern techniques and high-tech culinary gadgetry, but it must be remembered that such advantages did not exist in the 19th and early 20th centuries. As best described succinctly by Carole Lester, executive director of the Business Organization of Old Town, “It’s much more complicated than you think.”
True to the time period, all dishes must be prepared onsite, by hand and without the convenience of choppers, blenders, propane or any other electrical/mechanical device. Contestants must then make use of unregulated heat to carefully regulate the cooking of their dishes to the point of perfection within a four-hour time frame. And yet, one may be surprised to learn of the dishes from past years: Mexican Mac n’ Cheese, Boeuf Bourguignon, Chocolate Stout Cake, Southern Fried Chicken and the list goes on. Western methods, yet surprisingly cosmopolitan outcomes.
Though a culinary spectacle, the event is largely educational. Cooks take time to decorate their booths, chat with visitors, discuss their methods and provide history lessons on black pot cooking. Local artisans demonstrate industrial crafts of the time, including saddle making, rug hooking, blacksmithing and wood carving. The fine arts will also be on display, as the event features the art of Cowboy Poetry, officially beginning the National Week of Cowboy Poetry, and the event also hosts local folk bands and cowboy musical performers.
The central focus of the event is the cooking, but “black pot is not big enough to stand alone,” notes Lester. Despite the agrarian roots of the state, Dutch oven cooking and competitions are just not as popular in California as they are in other states. The hope of the organization is that one day the cook-off will be an International Dutch Oven Society-sanctioned event, and thus be a draw for professional cooking teams. The Society currently sanctions professional cook-offs in more than 30 states and Canada, and culminates in the annual International Championship in Salt Lake City, Utah. To have a sanctioned event in the Valley, then, would bring a new level of professional competitiveness that would allow the cook-off to stand on its own.
Until then, the event has been amalgamated with other features throughout the years. In prior years, the Craft Beer Crawl, now its own event, was paired with the cook-off. This year, in another clever mix of the old and the new, the event will have food trucks and a car show. Mixed together, it’s all bound to add up to a dish worth its weight in California gold.
Black Pot Cook-Off, April 17 9am-5pm • (559) 298-5774