A hobo stew may be the quintessential camping food, given its roots in community cooking and outdoor dining.
The history of the dish can be traced back to the Depression era, when thousands of out-of-work citizens crisscrossed the country on foot or by hitching rides on trains driven by unsuspecting (or friendly) engineers. The thought of a warm fire greeting hungry but friendly faces has certainly been romanticized over the years, since most—if not all—of the people living what is now fondly thought of as the hobo lifestyle were looking for ways to get themselves out of that situation.
Still, the camaraderie bred by their shared adversity gave rise to a must-have on the camping menu. Today, people around the country and world gather around fires to share their ingredients and their stories.
For anyone interested in the cooking, not the history, I’ll provide the recipe here and more of the lore of hobo stew below:
Mushroom Swiss Hobo Stew
While this recipe calls for ground beef, you can also substitute meat cut into slices. Hamburger is a classic hobo stew base, but that doesn’t mean it has to be the only option.
1 lb ground beef
1 onion diced
1 box or can of condensed mushroom soup (we like Trader Joe’s portobello mushroom soup)
1 16-oz. package of sliced mushrooms
4 oz. sliced Swiss cheese
salt and pepper to taste
In four separate foil packets, layer ground beef, onions, 1/4 cup of soup mix, Swiss cheese, and sliced mushrooms. Seal each foil packet and cook over coals, turning occasionally until the meat is cooked through and mushrooms are soft.
Once opened and sampled, the steaming ingredients inside can be mixed and enjoyed straight from the foil (as is traditional for hobo stew). The cheesy mess can also be poured over rice or noodles, used as toppings for a baked potato, or piled on bread or a roll for a sandwich or sliders.
Using whatever you have on hand to enjoy this meal fits with the sense of spontaneity that led to its creation and popularization. The idea—so the stories go—was that the more established hobo camps that dotted the country would have at least one fire that was always burning.
A visitor to the camp, freshly arrived after a long and dusty journey from wherever, could be sure of two things: That whatever he had to eat was nowhere near enough to satisfy his nutritional needs, and that the awaiting fire would be heating a pot full of something bubbling and satisfying.
Hobo stew solved the problem of nutrition—not just hunger—by creating a community-based kitchen that served one thing and one thing only, even though that one thing was constantly changing. The stew at the heart of the camp was made up of whatever the people living there at the time contributed. This allowed them to turn the little bit of vitamins, minerals, or protein in the solitary handful of vegetables or packet of meat scraps they had into a hearty dish that offered a more complex mix of calories and flavors, available to everyone who added to the pot.
Today, the mix of this and that thrown into a foil packet nods at hobo stew’s hodgepodge of a beginning. While the recipe above calls for the creation of four separate meals, consider bringing all of the necessary base ingredients to be sure you satisfy your own hunger, then inviting each camper to supply something surprising from home. Cook it all up in one big packet (or a Dutch oven—we won’t tell), and see what comes out of the coals.