Only her nose knows when dinner is ready.
That refined sense of smell and a brain packed with every conceivable cooking tip has kept Colleen Sloan spreading the Dutch oven gospel of good grub for the past 40 years.
She's written and self-published six cookbooks. And she's traveled to 49 different states and given hundreds of demonstrations. The Beehive State's own Dutch oven diva, Sloan may be the only woman in Utah to make her living with a cast-iron pot.
Rather, a cast of cast-iron pots. At last count, she had approximately 170 of them.
And if those pots could talk, they'd tell of sitting on the coals in 20-below weather in a Montana winter. Or clanging along a mountain trail atop a mule, headed for a Scout Jamboree. Or simmering as part of a Winter Olympics feast for 1,400 people that Sloan managed to serve in downtown Salt Lake City alongside cowboy poetry back in 2002.
She has a bean pot that dates to 1734, decades before the Revolutionary War, a cast-iron fry pan with legs inherited from her mother's stove, and another with 6-inch legs that no doubt sat atop many a campfire. Images of the cast-iron cookware hang on her wall and dangle from her ears, a testament to her love affair with what she believes is the finest type of pot ever invented.
"Dutch ovens were actually the original pressure cooker and crock pot put together. Everything that comes out of them is tender and tastes so much better" than if it was cooked in the microwave, in the oven or on the stove top, she says.
That's because true Dutch oven cooks "never lift the lid" until their nose tells them the food is done, meaning all of the nutrients that went into the pot stay there.
The legend of backcountry Dutch oven cooking in this country dates to 1707, she says, when a Brit named Abraham Darby brought his cast-iron pots across the Atlantic and began selling them to settlers in the New World. Impressed by their durability and versatility, backcountry cooks would talk them up, telling how a "Dutch" man would show up occasionally to sell his ovens. Thus the moniker "Dutch oven."
And much like word of Darby's pots spread from friend to friend, tales of Sloan's expertise with food and a few briquets has spread nationwide, to the point that she has been commissioned this summer by organizers of the national Lewis and Clark bicentennial celebration to demonstrate how the legendary expedition turned big game into bite-sized fare. She'll cook for history buffs at public celebrations along the Lewis and Clark trail from Missouri to Oregon.
She's written a cookbook to commemorate the occasion, but she doesn't worry about marketing or book-signing events. When she wanted to publish her first book, 10 different publishers turned her down, so she dug into her savings and paid to publish and distribute it herself. When a publisher came calling after the first book's success, she declined the overture. She sells "plenty" of them without a word of advertising, she says. She's kept the same "down-home" format as her first book, which contained recipes from her 99-year-old grandmother's handwritten cookbook.
The books are found in sporting good stores across the country, as well as in Australia, and a distributor has just picked them up for sale in Japan.
"People are coming back to this way of cooking. It's really growing in popularity again," she says. She uses a Dutch oven so often that her muscled arms are tan from days spent in the sun over a blackened stove.
Utahns have taken to Dutch oven cooking in droves, she says, noting that Reams Food Stores have used $9.99 Dutch ovens to lure customers inside during the past few weeks. A clerk at the West Jordan store confirmed Sloan's account, saying her store has sold at least 500 of the cast-iron pots.
"We can't keep them on the shelf," the clerk says. "People come in and buy a grocery cart full of them."
The International Dutch Oven Society holds its annual world championship cook-off in Salt Lake City each year. The annual Festival of the American West features Dutch oven cooking demonstrations and cook-offs, as do many municipalities including Orem, Payson, Ogden, Murray and West Jordan during summer celebrations.
Because correct cast-iron cooking includes leaving most vegetables, like potatoes, unpeeled, a greater percentage of vitamins and nutrients are held inside the pot, she says.
While she always cooks outdoors in the summer backyard demonstrations are a regular event at Sloan's home she doesn't let her pots sit idle in winter. She uses her electric oven to heat the Dutch oven, using only "half as much heat" as she would without the iron pot. "It's much more fuel efficient" even in summer, when she buys charcoal briquets by the pallet.
Does she ever yearn for the simplicity of a frozen dinner in the microwave? Not a chance, she says, adding that at age 65, her best years are still ahead.
Raised on a farm near Promontory Summit in northern Utah, Sloan came from a long line of Dutch oven devotees. Her family moved to California when she was 13. They realized after a year they had made a mistake.
"I didn't like how crowded it was or the lifestyle. I didn't fit in," she remembers, kicking back in a pair of jeans and furry moccasins. "I was still dressing in britches and Levi's and cowboy boots."
Her return to her rural roots made her determined to hang onto a lifestyle many would relish but few could imitate. After she raised five children, her husband and one of her sons died, leaving her alone 11 years ago. Since then, Sloan has spun her catering expertise and country cooking knowledge from a part-time hobby into a full-time job. She travels all but about 80 days a year, cooking and giving demonstrations for groups as diverse as the U.S. Forest Service, the Boy Scouts, major sporting goods chains, the National Livestock Show and Snowbird resort.
Though her phone rings incessantly with requests for a cooking class or a catered event, she takes time for her 13 grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and 17 "adopted" grandchildren, who wouldn't know what to think if Grandma didn't haul out the kettles for family dinners.Sloan loads her Chevy Suburban and a small utility trailer with pots and other cooking paraphernalia for trips to Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and other Western states on a regular basis. She generally doesn't fly "cast iron is too heavy" but once flabbergasted a gate agent who couldn't figure out why a little lady like her would haul a bag full of cast iron along for the ride.