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Rural Missouri Magazine
A recipe for togetherness
Preparing fanciful meals over an open fire unites people and teaches the lost art of cooking

by Bob McEowen

Beverly Moore laughs while supervising participants in a Huckleberry Hollow Campfire Cuisine clinic. Beverly and her husband, Dan, facilitate corporate team-building exercises and other group activities centered on open-fire cooking. Participants, from left, Ron Weigand and Chrissy Kerkvliet decorate a Black Forest ribbon cake prepared in a Dutch oven while Kristen Kietzman looks on.

Florida jambalaya, island chicken and rice, roasted vegetables, cheesy squash casserole and Black Forest ribbon cake — the menu sounds like it might come from an upscale restaurant. But these dishes will be prepared outside, over an open fire, by people who have never cooked together before.

“Each fire pit will do a main dish, a side dish and a dessert,” Beverly Moore explains to a group of friends and relatives seated in lawn chairs around a fire pit. “It takes about two hours to cook your meal. And you’re busy the whole time.”

The spectators soon become participants as Beverly and her husband, Dan, divide their guests into teams and turn them loose for an afternoon of supervised campfire cooking. Before the day is done, they’ll enjoy a veritable feast prepared in cast-iron Dutch ovens.

Participants at a Huckleberry Hollow Campfire Cuisine clinic lift the lid of a Dutch oven to check a casserole prepared over an open fire. Dutch ovens feature a lid that can be loaded with hot coals to supply heat from the top.

By doing so, the Moores’ guests will join a growing number of Americans who have discovered outdoor cooking as a recreational activity.Spurred in part by a Missouri-based television show, campfire cooking is gaining in popularity and bringing friends and family together at the same time.

“It’s not really hard. It’s just a matter of learning how to control the temperature of your fire and not getting in a big hurry,” Dan says. “Once you learn the basics, you get pretty brave. You think there isn’t anything you can’t do.”

The Moores, members of Osage Valley Electric Cooperative, are proof that confidence grows quickly over an open fire. The couple attended a campfire cooking class three years ago. Two years ago, they launched Huckleberry Hollow Campfire Cuisine, a business that facilitates corporate team-building exercises, church retreats and other group activities centered on open-fire cooking at their home near Freeman.

With a promise to “rekindle your spirit,” Bev and Dan open their idyllic lakeside property to groups as large as 50, who turn out culinary treats beyond their wildest imagination.

The inspiration for the Moore’s enterprise is “Campfire Café,” a television program aired on the RFD-TV satellite network and many cable TV systems. Based in Marble Hill, the show introduces viewers to the joys of outdoor cooking.

Bob Alford, right, films his wife, Pam, prepare a meal during production of an episode of "Campfire Café." The television program, aired primarily on the RFD-TV satellite network, teaches viewers to prepare elaborate meals over an open fire.

“Campfire Café” is the brainchild of Web site designer and television producer Pam Alford and her husband, Bob, a retired pilot. After five years with an Alabama cowboy as frontman, Pam has stepped in front of the camera to lead the show, which has always featured her recipes. Each week, Pam and her co-host, former jockey Larry Wiseheart, prepare a main dish, a side dish and a dessert over an open fire.

“What we do is not just campground food. It’s not bacon and beans,” Pam says. “It’s gourmet campfire cuisine.”

Indeed, the recipes she presents on “Campfire Café” — as well as in her cookbook, “Over the Open Fire” — rarely fit the mold of camp fare. Apple and herb-stuffed pork chops, lemon-poppy seed pound cake, creamy artichoke chowder and seafood quiche sound like dishes that would be difficult to make in the kitchen. But regular viewers pull these and other delights off the campfire with ease.

Pam Alford and Larry Wiseheart are the hosts of "Campfire Café." Each week they prepare a main dish, a side dish and a dessert using cast-iron cookware and an open fire.

“There is no reason why you can’t eat like this outdoors. It’s not that big a deal,” Pam says as she slices into an olive-stuffed pork roast prepared for an upcoming episode. “This was less effort than throwing together a pot of chili.”

Pam and her EMG Productions company have taken the “Campfire Café” show on the road, filming episodes at Opryland, the Jack Daniels Distillery and the Hank Williams estate. In nearly 150 half-hour shows they’ve prepared meals on campfires, backyard fire pits and over an open hearth. In 2006 they conducted a nationwide tour of campfire cooking clinics held at KOA campgrounds.

Many of the dishes Pam features — the same recipes Beverly and Dan teach their clients to make — are prepared in a Dutch oven. Also called a camp oven, the Dutch oven is based on iron cookware produced in Holland in the 1600s, but Europeans were baking in metal pots centuries before. American Colonists added a flanged lid and legs to lift the Dutch oven off the coals. The most prominent feature of a “modern” Dutch oven, the lip allows coals to be placed on top of the pot to provide heat from above.

This meal of Olive-stuffed pork roast with roasted vegetables was prepared over an open fire for an upcoming episode of the “Campfire Café” television broadcast.

“Basically, it’s an outdoor oven,” Beverly says. “Anything that you can cook in your kitchen, you can cook in your Dutch oven over a fire.”

The Alfords sell Dutch ovens, cast-iron skillets and an array of devices for suspending the cookware above a fire pit on their Web site. But Pam is quick to insist the “Campfire Café” broadcast is not about equipment.

“We use Dutch ovens, but we are not a Dutch oven cooking show. We’re just a cooking show,” Pam says.

Pam grew up near the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and learned to cook at an early age. She got a crash course in outdoor cooking after Hurricane Camille ripped through her hometown. History came full circle in 2005 as viewers of RFD-TV wrote the Alfords to say the show helped them survive Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The proper tools — a cowboy cookset, cast-iron Dutch ovens, gloves and a swing-away grill — allow cooks to prepare any meal outdoors that they could cook in their kitchen.

“Cooking is a life skill. Ask the Katrina survivors,” the Black River Electric Co-op member says. “In an instant, life as you know it can end. Then how are you going to feed yourself?”

While some view campfire cooking as a survival skill, most people do it for other reasons. Flavors from foods prepared in cast-iron cookware seep into the metal and continued use results in a savory sensation that’s hard to compare. And whether it’s the smoke or the fire or just the fresh air, most people agree that food simply tastes better cooked outdoors.

Men, it seems, especially enjoy learning to expand their outdoor cooking beyond grilled steaks and burnt hamburgers.

“I was so proud of my first cake,” says Dan, who made a pecan cake topped with brandied peaches at a Campfire Café cooking camp he attended with Beverly. “I don’t think I ever baked anything in my life. But it just seems like a manly thing to do over a campfire.”

The Moores hope to tap into a growing resurgence in outdoor cooking with their Huckleberry Hollow Campfire Cuisine enterprise. The couple has constructed four fire pits on their property south of Kansas City and use campfire cooking as a way to bring groups together. Although Bev and Dan keep a close watch on their guests, it’s the participants themselves who prepare the meals. Often, guests are surprised at what they produce.

Beverly and Dan Moore introduce their guests to Dutch oven cooking at a Huckleberry Hollow Campfire Cuisine clinic. The Moores offer group cooking classes on their idyllic rural property south of Kansas City.

“I think your initial reaction has to be, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I’m eating a Black Forest ribbon cake that I cooked over an open fire,’” says Nancy Owens, a neighbor who has attended a number of Huckleberry Hollow events. “People come out here and go away amazed at what they just did and what they just saw.”

Sharon Miles, another recent Huckleberry Hollow participant, agrees.

“The recipes are more elaborate than I would have expected,” she says. “Everything was so delicious and it was so much fun. My gosh, I don’t know why people would not want to do it.”

Bev Moore, a former executive at Sprint, created Huckleberry Hollow Campfire Cuisine to facilitate team-building exercises based around outdoor cooking.

Outdoor cooking in 18th-century cookware has long been popular with Boy Scouts and cowboy cooks, but the pastime has really taken off in recent years, says Mark Kelly, a spokesman for Lodge Manufacturing, the only company still producing cast-iron cookware in America.

“People are discovering a renewed sense of community by cooking outdoors, and sitting around the campfire and having a good time,” he says.

Interest in cast-iron cooking has exploded, fueled in part by safety concerns about Teflon and other non-stick cookware. But outdoor and camp cooking are especially popular, with outdoor cooking festivals and organized Dutch oven gatherings, or DOGs, held nearly every weekend, somewhere in the county.

Campfire cooking is particularly well suited for families, the Alfords say. Whether to lure kids away from their video games or as a way for divorced dads to entertain kids on weekends, campfire cooking is an ideal way for families to reconnect, they say.

“Even a surly teenager, when you get them to making a pizza over the open fire, they’ll do it and they’ll enjoy it,” Pam says. “And what you’ll see is the attitude changes. We’ve seen it time and time again.”

Indeed, Pam and Bob Alford say they regularly receive e-mails and letters from grateful viewers who say “Campfire Café” has made a difference in their lives.

"Campfire Café" host Pam Alford tends the fire at an outdoor film location behind her home near Marble Hill.

“We didn’t get in this to do a good thing,” Bob says. “But the longer we’re in it, the more I begin to understand that we’re doing something beyond our control. We’re finding out it brings families together.”

And that, more than the great taste of fanciful recipes prepared over an open fire, is the reason the Alfords, Moores and others recommend taking up outdoor cooking.

The skills involved in Dutch oven cooking are not difficult to master, proponents say. With the help of cooking clinics like those the Moores provide, or the television show the Alfords produce, there is plenty of guidance to get newcomers started.

Nancy and Mike Owens make their way through the buffet that concludes each cooking clinic at Huckleberry Hollow.

“We want people to just do it, to try it,” says Pam, who often provides recipes, advice and moral support to individuals like the Moores who share the joy of outdoor cooking. “We encourage it and support it because that’s what we’re about. It’s all about cooking outdoors and inspiring other people to do it.”

For people who want to try campfire cuisine on their own, the Alfords offer additional instruction through an online tutorial, instructional DVDs and their cookbook — which is now sold by the Boy Scouts of America. The Moore’s business is directed primarily at groups, but they agree that with a little determination, a good fire and the proper cast-iron cookware, there isn’t any reason why anyone can’t enjoy the pleasures of outdoor cooking.

“Anybody can do this,” says Beverly, who is working to expand her cooking clinic business beyond corporate clients.

“People who have never even touched a kitchen are just so excited to get in there and do it. It’s amazing.”

For recipes, cooking tips, cast-iron cookware or information about “Campfire Café,” log onto www.campfirecafetv.com, write EMG Productions, RR 4, Box 1775, Marble Hill, MO 63764; or phone 1-800-556-0414. For information about Huckleberry Hollow Campfire Cuisine, write to 26401 S. Owens Lane, Freeman, MO 64746; call (816) 779-1125; or log onto http://mypeoplepc.com/members/drahtharr/huckleberryhollowinc.

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