Monday, October 31, 2022

Notes on Hobo Stew

When I make this beef stew with hamburger meat, I always think about the following experience from childhood:

The school I attended in 5th and 6th grade served beef stew made with hamburger meat each Wednesday for lunch. I thought it was delicious and looked forward to that Wednesday lunch, when you could have a second dipper of stew provided you ate everything on your plate.

Sadly, one Wednesday, the cafeteria also served sweet potatoes, my bĂȘte noire, along with the stew. I took a bite, realized I couldn't choke them down, and hid the sweet potatoes under a slice of bread.

When the eagle-eyed principal Ms. Ellis, she of the fiery red hair to match her fiery temperament, came along with the stew pot and dipper to serve more to those who merited second helpings and I asked for a second helping, she said, "What's hidden under that bread?"

Shamefacedly, I lifted it to show her the abominable sweet potato — and there was no second helping for this little boy that Wednesday!

I shared the photo above and that story on Facebook last evening, and a friend replied, telling me that in her school cafeteria in California, it was called hobo stew. I don't remember my school in south Arkansas using that name for it, but it did ring a bell when she mentioned it. I'm fairly sure this is what that dish was called in our Boy Scout manual, and I remember making it to earn my merit badge in, oh, something like cooking in the woods.

In 1960, my parents built a house in a brand-new suburb that had previously been old farms long since grown up with pine forests. Much of that countryside remained right in the brand-new suburb for the first years we lived in that house. I got my Boy Scout merit badge in butterflies and moths simply by walking across the street to a field in which no house had yet been built, a field full of milkweed, sedge grass, mullein, other wildflowers that attracted butterflies and moths, and in no time flat, I had netted an impressive selection of butterflies and moths to mount on cardboard and identify.

Beyond that field and ringing the neighborhood on two sides were pine forest, where my brothers and I spent many summer hours riding our bikes on sandy trails and playing, pretending that native people still hid behind the trees waiting to attack us. We'd often spend entire days in the woods, skipping lunch not returning home until nightfall.

When I made my hobo stew to earn my merit badge in woodland cooking, I invited my parents and brothers to come into the woods beyond the field across the street from our house, then made a fire and cooked the stew in a large old tin can over the fire. I remember it being tasty, and my parents were happy to sign off on the merit badge and verify that I had, indeed, cooked a meal in the woods for my family.

After my Facebook friend reminded me of the name "hobo stew" last evening, I did some googling to see what more I could learn about this recipe, and found an astonishing "corrective" recipe for hobo stew online from someone who says that, for her, hobo stew refers to a concoction of pork and beans, onions, brown sugar, Italian sausage, bacon, and maple syrup.

I cannot imagine. A cup of canned American-style pork and beans contains nearly 4 grams of sugar. Then this recipe adds to that sugar more brown sugar and maple syrup! And good luck on finding in most grocery stores any American-made Italian sausage that doesn't have sugar added to it.

That's not a main dish. It's a dessert. Why do we Americans choose to eat this way?

Beats me.

No comments: