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Dutch Oven of Writer Purgatory Woe

Part 1 in a series where Tabitha Blankenbiller writes about and creates a legit literary recipe based on moments of universal agony or joy in a writer’s life. Humble pie, anyone?

I LEFT FOR CRATER LAKE a few days after sending my book proposal. I pressed Send last week, technically a holiday week—and heading to New York, where they seem to stretch those holidays, right? I mean, you can’t even submit books to editors during the summertime. Manhattan must empty out into a husk of boarded-up brownstones and abandoned hot dog carts, the publishing world transplanted from skyscrapers to Hampton cottages pasted with seashell-apothecary jar arrangements and “Life’s a Beach” stenciled plaques.

This is what I told myself for four days as I swiped my thumb down the middle of my phone. Over and over, watching the refresh circle spin and the time update. Zero messages.

Four days, of course, is nothing. We know this. Four days is barely enough time to read a fresh email, let alone open up its precious attachments, the Microsoft Word documents I’ve been tenderly plotting and avoiding and, on a couple of hot streaks, worshipping.

And yet.

Where is my “Got it—thanks!” Do they not have Wi-Fi on the Jitney bus? Did my email, weighted with attachments, get dumped into her junk folder? How long do I have to wait before I send my obnoxious “just checking in!” missive, the mosquito of electronic communication?

Here, along the rim of America’s deepest lake, my publishing career is Schrodinger’s Cat. My anxiety is not founded or confirmed; it is irrelevant. My email won’t chime until we’re about 80 miles outside of the park. It’s almost as if I planned it this way, this escape into an untouchable lagoon, distracting myself for the weeks trailing up to deadline. Which camping chair is the highest rated, and what will I be most hungry for days from now in the middle of nowhere? I bought a new Dutch Oven and a tripod stand to hang over the fire, like the one Alton Brown uses on Good Eats when he pretends he’s hours away from a southern California film studio.

This is what camping is, after all. A long weekend of make-believe. Pretending that you are outdoorsy, that your fire-making skills would see you through the apocalypse, that citronella candles work, that you could never tire of living underneath a swath of canvas. That your answers—or lack thereof—lay dormant on the other side.

(A.K.A. Campfire Chicken and Biscuits)

•2 cups cooked chicken, torn apart while staring vacantly ahead
•1 tablespoon of leftover bacon grease (or vegetable oil, if you haven’t been stockpiling breakfast scraps)
•1 bag frozen mixed veggies
•2 cups milk
•1 onion, diced
•1 can cream of mushroom soup
•1 can cream of chicken soup
•1 tablespoon of your favorite herby spice, like Herbes de Provence
•Salt and pepper to taste
•1 tube of super-pressurized Grands buttermilk biscuits that make you scream when they pop open because your nerves have HAD IT


Build a fire, or instruct your long-suffering partner to do so. The one who has spent this trip hearing you gnaw through whether the sample chapter you sent was as “zingy” as you thought it was a week ago. As he tears apart the Crater Lake Summer Newsletter bulletin to use as kindling, tear up, and when he asks why, go on a tangent about how someone worked really hard to write that.

Heat the bacon grease (or oil) over medium-high camp stove heat in the Dutch Oven pan that’s so new, you’re still eating Chinese factory fumes from the surface. You wanted to buy the Made in America brand, but you’re still waiting on your last feature’s check to arrive, so the cheapest Amazon special wins. You are such a hypocrite.

Add the onion and sauté until golden brown. Turn off the heat, then stir together the chicken, veggies, soups, milk, herbs, salt, and pepper. Remove from the camp stove and place the lid on top. It is now ready to hang on the cooking tripod over the fire, now ablaze. Feel very bad for being such a jerk about the newsletter. Partner will plead with you to just, please, don’t cry again.

It only takes about half an hour to get the mixture boiling, but then you must remove the lid and place the biscuits on top. You’re supposed to wait until they’re golden brown. You wait an hour, then check, and they’re still puffy and white. Wait another half hour, check again. Same deal. Start reading the random book you’ve agreed to review and become enraged that such repetitive, poorly paced drivel gets this huge marketing blitz from a Big Six. Contemplate converting your high school Legend of Zelda fan fiction into a trilogy.

Twenty minutes later, say screw it and remove oven from fire. You can’t wait another second for these bullshit biscuits and their lack of gold. Scoop two heaping portions onto paper plates and dive in. Discover that the biscuits haven’t goldened but have puffed and cooked perfectly inside, like dumplings. It’s like chicken pot pie under the stars, and it’s good enough to forget everything, even the schlocky metaphor of good things coming in their own time and way.

TABITHA BLANKENBILLER is a Pacific University MFA graduate currently living in Portland, Oregon. Her essays have appeared in a number of journals, including The Rumpus, Barrelhouse, Hobart, Passages North, and Brevity. She also reviews books for Bustle and writes an ongoing series of Food Network fan fiction for The Mondegreen. For more of her work, visit tabithablankenbiller.com, and for a pithy good time, follow her on Twitter at @tabithablanken.

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