Hot 'n' Heavy: Diggin' in at the Riggins annual Dutch Oven Cook-off
In the early part of the 20th century, Harry Guleke became one of the first non–Native Americans to float the remote 150-mile section of the Salmon River from Salmon City to Lewiston. He built 32-foot wooden scows to navigate this stretch through one of the deepest gorges on the continent. Part of Captain Guleke’s legend was his riverside Dutch oven cooking, a culture that thrives among presentday “river runners.”
From the east, an 80-mile roadless stretch of the main Salmon intersects with the Little Salmon at the quiet town of Riggins, perched unpretentiously above the bend where the divergent river cuts north. In early June in Riggins, “The Whitewater Capital,” the high water from winter runoff decreases to a more predictable 80,000–90,000 cubic feet per second, and it’s time to boat.
Until the 1980s, folks came from all over to float the Salmon this time of year—nowhere else in the world can you run that volume of water right next to a town. But when a couple of noncommercial, high-profile fatalities shied people away, the town became quiet in the formerly roaring summer season.
Then, in 1998, outfitters Roy Akins, Mike Hicks and Matt Laine started the Big Water Blowout River Festival to promote safe boating at high water. In the evening, boaters gathered at Seven Devils Steakhouse to watch video clips from their adventurous day on the river. Knowing the rafters would be famished, Karen Akins, Roy’s wife, organized a Dutch oven potluck to showcase some of the creative meals made on overnight float trips.
There were no rules and no judges, just cast iron, paper plates and a spirit of camaraderie—guides created bonds, built trust and traded recipes.
Since then, Akins says the Dutch Oven Cook-Off “has taken on a life of its own.”
At around 2pm on festival day—the first Saturday in June—a few people shuffled around Riggins City Park, setting up booths, a beer garden and a stage. Except for the occasional sound of a beer can cracking open, it was relatively quiet—and sweltering hot. Kids played in hose water and a small gathering of people sliced, chopped and diced in a fencedoff area under the shade of trees.
Some were locals who participate in the Dutch Oven Cook-Off every year; others were weekenders who heard about the contest while buying fruit at the local farm stand. But there were no river guides to be found. Oh, no. They were still on the water.
Just before 5pm, activity intensified inside the fenced prep area—20 guides representing eight-or-so outfitting companies rushed in, tripling the number of Cook-Off participants. The only parameter for the competition: Everything must be assembled and cooked in a Dutch oven on-site, in two hours. Coals were hot. Game faces were on.
Organizers Karin Akins and Jaclyn Truppi (my sister, an ex-guide and river ranger) buzzed around with clipboards, arranged dozens of locally donated prizes, lined up the 45 recipe entries and briefed the five judges. There are two overall contest categories: individuals and outfitters. Individuals may enter any number of dishes as either an appetizer, main course or dessert; outfitters choose their best chefs, whose dishes represent the company. Judges, hand-selected each year for their palate and passion for food, score overall appeal, presentation, execution, taste and difficulty of preparation in a “Dutchie.” The grand prize for each division is a locally designed, handmade fire pan.
By 7pm, judges were deliberating over aromas and seasonings, and the Cook-Off had turned into a spectator sport. A throng of people lined up to buy sample plates, while nosier types leaned over the fence to peer into pots. Local morels, picked on “No Tell ’Em Mountain,” found their way into dishes like morelcrusted short ribs. And a fair amount of the meat was hunted—like the wild-boar chipotle enchiladas, venison chili and “Elk Pie,” aka elk burger stuffed cornbread, a past favorite from an infamous river ranger. The festival coincides with the Chinook salmon return so a number of dishes contained freshly lined salmon, like the salmon balls appetizer.
Desserts, too, bore locally harvested fruit, with apples from Fiddle Creek Fruit Stand, cherries picked on Main Street in Riggins and foraged huckleberries. And though there was nothing local about the River Bread Pudding, made with Irish whiskey caramel sauce, samplers didn’t seem to mind.
In the end, Kerry Brennan’s elk and morel stroganoff was crowned “Individual Best Overall” and multi-time champion Ruth Bingaman of Exodus Wilderness Adventures took the “Outfitter Best Overall” prize for her deep-dish chicken cordon bleu.
“Ruth always says it’s her last year, but she keeps coming back,” said Truppi.
Likewise, the Dutch Oven Cook-Off continues to lure folks back year after year. So much for The River of No Return.