They cook. They cook a lot. And they do it outside, spurning the mere comfort and convenience of their kitchens. At a time when fewer and fewer people can be bothered to cook at all, you have to ask what inspires the hardy souls among us who, with unflagging gusto, raise the bar of culinary difficulty by creating whole feasts under the open sky.
Compelled by curiosity, practical ingenuity, sociability, obsession, love of food, and, of course, the desire simply to be outside, they’re exploring diverse answers to the question, “But can I do it in the back yard?”
Brick, Dutch, or solar—however you fashion your oven, it’s clear there’s a whole lot of cooking that can be done outside, from pizza to bread rolls; cake to hamburgers. And in a town like Tucson, with weather like ours, why not take your onion-chopping into the fresh air?
For Bruce Joseph, an organizer for Solar Guild/Citizens for Solar, it all started with an idle what-if sort of question.
“It just popped into my head one day: ‘Can you boil water with the sun?’ I Googled it, discovered it was possible, and built this weird parabolic trough cooker using PVC and Mylar.
“That was it. I was hooked, and I kept modifying and changing it until I had a very powerful solar grill with a mirror and a Fresnel lens off a projection TV to focus the rays.”
In its current incarnation, his grill can cook two ¼-inch turkey burgers to well-done in under six minutes. Needless to say, Bruce, who has a degree in computer science, encyclopedic knowledge of beer, and a part-time job selling craft beer at 1702, didn’t stop there.
“There are three basic types of solar cooker. Panel cookers, which work like crock pots and reach temperatures of around 200 degrees Fahrenheit, box ovens which work like conventional ovens and can reach temperatures of over 350 degrees, and parabolic cookers, which work like stovetop burners and reach temperatures of over 800 degrees. With all three you can solar-cook almost anything that you can make in your kitchen.”
His path to a complete solar set-up has been strewn with big lenses, parabolic dishes and, lately, evacuated tube cookers that reach 500 degrees but are light enough for backpacking. His current project is a tube cooker for which he’s developing a reflector and steel food tray.
In spite of his obvious appreciation for the sun’s silent, focused efficacy, he’s occasionally lost temporary sight of its incendiary potential.
“Why wouldn’t anyone want
an alternative to turning
on the oven in July?”
“I once partially melted my garbage cans with light bouncing off of a 59-inch parabolic reflector—since then I keep it turned upside down and weighted so it can’t blow over and set something on fire.”
There was also the time a Fresnel lens he’d set down on the driveway started to melt the asphalt, and an incident where his pants began to char. Most of his mishaps, though, have been of the minor grabbing-a-hot-handle sort that can befall any cook. And, he points out, it’s a less expensive hobby than his other interest: high-end craft beer.
“And then, I really like to cook and fool around with recipes. I make a nice paella and a pork shoulder with chiles that’s really popular at the potluck.”
The 33rd Annual Solar Potluck at Catalina State Park—free, open to the public and attended by thousands since its inception—will be held on April 11 this year. It is, according to Bruce, the longest-running annual solar event in the world. More than 40 enthusiasts will be cooking, with one using a nine-foot parabolic reflector that can cook 10 pounds of chicken in an hour, and the organizers are contemplating adding an Iron Chef-style competition to the festivities. (Past competitions tended to be about the amount of food cooked—Citizens for Solar was originally, as Bruce explains, essentially a men’s cooking club that coalesced in the late ’70s from a group of people who liked hanging around in each other’s backyards in the summer, swimming, smoking pot, and talking about how to make food without having to go inside.) The group, which recently merged with the more technically oriented Solar Guild, also does public service projects, as well as solar outreach and education at local schools and at green-themed events. Their strategy is to use solar cooking to interest the public in the wider potential of solar: Bruce regularly sets up his grill in Himmel Park on nice weekends and talks solar with anyone who walks up and asks what he’s doing.
“There’s all different sorts of people who get interested in this—for example, you’ve got preppers, folks who’re getting ready for the apocalypse. In addition to cooking, you can easily distill water using solar, and of course they’re into that.
“But, really, why wouldn’t anyone want an alternative to turning on the oven in July?”
The bulldozer is the first thing you notice. It sits outside Carolyn and George Dumler’s pleasant, far-northwest-side home, which, in turn, sits along a sandy, nicely graded dirt road through a cholla and ironwood forest. The bulldozer says a lot about the Dumlers: These are people who get out and do things for themselves.
Their latest venture is a cookbook, Southwest Dutch Oven (Gibbs Smith, 2014) featuring the techniques and recipes that have won them first places in a series of local, outdoor Dutch oven cooking competitions around Arizona and New Mexico, plus two fourth-place finishes in the intensely competitive International Dutch Oven Society’s World Championship Cook-Off, held each March in Sandy, Utah. The book features sophisticated, elegant recipes, plus detailed instructions about the size of the oven, the number of coals and timing designed to take the anxiety out of cooking in the deep, lidded black iron pots most popularly associated with pioneers, cowboys, prospectors, and messes of beans and soda-bread.
(You didn’t know that competitive Dutch oven cooking was a thing? Now you do. In Utah, where everything pioneer is sacred, it’s big: 20 to 25 teams compete in the annual cook-off.)
“The Dutch oven is the official state cook pot of Utah,” says Carolyn, an assistant superintendent in the Marana school district. “We’ve competed against Utah teams who’ve been out cooking their competition menus over and over every weekend for months. People are just very serious about it up there. But also very nice.”
The motto of the Dutch Oven Society is “Good Friends. Good Food. Good Fun,” but the rules governing sanctioned competitions are strict. The two-person teams have five hours in which to prepare bread, a main dish, and a dessert, all completely from scratch, using only Dutch ovens and charcoal and no electrical devices. (A big hand-cranked Amish mixer comes in handy.) The Dumlers, for instance, cannot use the prickly pear juice they make from fruit on their property in competition because it counts as something they prepared ahead of time.
As passionate outdoors people and talented cooks, the Dumlers had long been experimenting with Dutch ovens while boating and camping, and at their rustic place on Mount Graham.
“You get tired of steak and hamburgers,” explains George.
As a boy on a cattle ranch in Colorado, George had seen his grandparents cook outside using the ovens, and he’d been cooking since he was a teenager.
“I wanted to go to culinary school, but my mother said, ‘No, you’re an outside kind of guy.’ She was right. I hate being stuck inside.”
Carolyn, in turn, grew up on a dairy farm in Minnesota, where she helped her mother do the daily baking for a large household. She’s been baking ever since.
In 2008, on one of their regular jaunts around Arizona, they happened across an outdoor Dutch oven competition at a wine festival in Bowie.
“I thought it would be fun to get into that,’ says George, an airplane mechanic who specializes in high-tech testing for structural damage. “So we started working on recipes and looking for competitions to enter. One turned up in Willcox at a tractor pull—terrible venue, lots of dust—and we knew we weren’t ready but we decided to just go for it.”
At that first contest, their bread collapsed in the middle, their cake burned, and they lost—badly. A month later, they entered another competition in New Mexico against many of the same people and won, qualifying them for their first foray to the Utah championship.
“We had a lot to learn,” George explains, tasting the Calabacitas con Puerco simmering in, naturally, a Dutch oven on the couple’s large back patio, where the calls of dove and quail are a constant sonic backdrop.
“You know what would be good in this?” he says to Carolyn. “Hominy.”
“You used the roasted corn, right?” she says.
“Yeah. But I think we should try hominy next time.”
“The first thing we learned was cook where you’re at,” George resumes. “If it’s a livestock show—and the local cook-offs are always part of a bigger event or festival—make beef. If something with hunters, such as a cook-off at Cabela’s, make game. If you’re in Utah, lay off the chiles.”
“The second big thing was presentation, which to begin with we didn’t know a thing about,” says Carolyn. “You’re allowed to present your food in the oven or on the lid. Period. So you have to think about what the pot and the lid look like and how you’ll arrange the food. We’ve bought some pots just for their nice lids.” (The Dumlers own upwards of 40 Dutch ovens, including one that’s deep enough for a medium-sized turkey. George hauls it into the store when he buys their Thanksgiving bird to test for fit.)
For the beautiful photos in their book, shot on the couple’s property by Edible Baja Arizona’s own Steven Meckler, they sometimes deviated from the competition rules.
They also lost points at their first championship for more esoteric aspects of presentation: not having matching outfits, themed decorations for their area, or a team name. And, sadly, George was wearing shorts.
Another fine point of championship strategy is creating a menu that tastes good cold, because it’s all photographed before being presented to the judges at the other end of a large, drafty hall where the doors are opened whenever the smoke detectors go off.
“Molten lava cake? Bad idea.”
It was at last year’s championship that they met their publisher, whom they noticed simply as an older gent who hung around, chatting up George and distracting him from getting on with the Spice-Rubbed Pork Tenderloin. (“I’m the one who keeps an eye on the clock,” says Carolyn. “I was going nuts.”) He left a card and returned the next day to propose that they put together a cookbook.
“All these other Dutch oven people we know had been trying to get a cookbook published for years, and for us, it just fell into our laps,” says Carolyn.
They’ve already started developing recipes for their next book at the request of their publisher. It’ll focus on game.
“I worship those guys at Dickman’s Meats,” says George. “We are so incredibly lucky to live in Tucson. We must have called 20 places in Salt Lake trying to find duck legs last year.”
In the meantime, he’s working on a challenge from a friend: a successful Dutch oven soufflé.
“I’m getting closer.”
Where Bruce Joseph and Carolyn and George Dumler are out to prove that you can cook anything outside, Philip Rosenberg is laser-focused on producing only one dish in his midtown backyard. Fortunately for his family and friends, it’s the world’s most popular food.
The pizza thing started for him eight years ago, after his godson, Gus Hoffman, returned from attending pizza school in Naples.
“Gus got me interested and I quickly realized that I had to have an outdoor oven—you can never get a regular oven close to hot enough. Stones, ‘pizza steels,’ all the things they sell to make your gas oven better for pizza? Totally useless,” he says.
For Philip, who owns both a construction company and a large backyard in a quiet midtown neighborhood, the obvious thing to do was to build a brick pizza oven of the sort that’s common in yards in the Italian countryside.
He built the first one in a far corner of the yard. It worked fine, but turned out to be inconveniently far from the house. He and his wife, Quinta, often host up to 12 on a typical Sunday evening and their guests insisted on hanging around the oven, enjoying the fire, drinking wine, and watching him and Gus Hoffman’s brother, Sam, and Philip’s son, Christopher, prep and bake the pies. (Sam is the pizza chef, Christopher, who is in training, functions as sous, while Philip’s role is oven/dough manager.) So he built a second oven near the doors to the kitchen.
“Actually, I like building the ovens even better than making the pizza. I’d love to build a pizza restaurant, one where no one would be allowed to wear a hat or talk on a cell phone. Not that I’d want to run it or even eat there.”
The key to the design of the ovens was sizing the half-spherical dome so they accommodate two small pies at once but stay incandescently hot with a minimum of Ramsey Canyon oak. He built the brick domes on concrete slabs set on a steel frame because he didn’t want to look at a lot of massive masonry, and insulated them with material that’s used on glass-blowing furnaces: The ovens are cool to the touch on the outside while going full blast. (“You don’t want to have to keep adding wood.”) And the main trick in the actual construction? “Keeping the dome from collapsing as you get toward the top. I used various supports, including beach balls wedged into the gap.”
He also built a pretty cylindrical tandoor, a traditional Indian oven, but has yet to perfect techniques for using it.
These days, with a pizza oven completed and positioned to his satisfaction, Philip concentrates on his crust, which is thin, crackery and superb, but never exactly what he’s looking for.
“I’ll go to my grave trying to make the perfect crust,” he says. “It’s only flour, yeast and water, but the permutations are inexhaustible. There’s time, temperature, different types of flour and different combinations of types of flour, and different strains of wheat. Italian flour and Arizona flour from Hayden Mills. I’m looking for the taste of sourdough bread, which I love, but have yet to achieve. It may be impossible. I read somewhere that San Francisco sourdough depends on strains of yeast that occur naturally in those hills.”
He typically starts his dough on Wednesday night and keeps an Excel spreadsheet on all the batches. He will reveal none of the details. When he makes three different doughs for a single evening, as he often does, he and his assistants half-jokingly refer to them as Doughs A, B, and C.
They don’t cook during the hottest months, preferring evenings when working around a roaring oven is fun, and it’s nice enough for everyone to eat outside.
“Food tastes different out in the fresh air,” he says. “Everything is better outside.” ✜
Visit SolarGuild.org for details about the 33rd Annual Solar Potluck on April 11. Admission is free.
Join George and Carolyn Dumler for a book signing and cooking demo on March 28, 9 a.m.–1 p.m. at the Sportman’s Warehouse, 3945 W. Costco Drive.
Renée Downing has been eating and writing
in Tucson for nearly 40 years.