Hobo Stew and Banana Boats
When I was a child in southern California in the early 1970s, camping was a regular part of my life. For my family of four, it was an easy and inexpensive way to get away from the city for the weekend. My dad especially liked state campgrounds because they were less populated — normally because they had no running water. My earliest memories of camping all involve pit toilets and rationed water. We would spend our weekends at Joshua Tree, Anza Borrego, Death Valley, or one of the small state parks in the Angeles National Forest. Days were about hiking and being allowed to explore freely, and evenings were occupied with campfires and family game nights.
My mom had never tent-camped before she met my dad in the 1960s, but she embraced it. It was not unusual for my dad to get home from work on a Friday to be told by my mom to take a quick shower while she, with my sister and me helping, loaded the car. Everything was organized in our garage to allow for that kind of spontaneity. There was one area designated for storing the tent, sleeping bags, and various storage boxes my dad had fashioned. One such wooden box was made with numerous customized cubbies to hold the Colman stove, the coffee pot, plates, flatware, and cooking utensils. My parents were not into “glamping” (although I think given the opportunity, my mom would have embraced that as well), and with two children and a dog to load in the station wagon, there was little room for anything but necessities.
We would generally arrive at the campground as it grew dark, so everyone had their tasks in quickly setting up camp. From a very early age, my sister and I would help put up the tent and arrange the sleeping bags and duffels inside. Meanwhile, my mom would prepare a late-evening snack, like homemade oatmeal cookies and hot cocoa, to hold everyone until breakfast.
Mornings would greet us with the smell of wood smoke and campfire coffee. My dad, an early riser by nature and habit, would have been up with the dawn to start a fire and his coffee. Looking back, I think he probably relished this quiet time before the rest of us woke. I feel the same when camping with my family nowadays – although my coffee is made with a French press rather than the old campfire percolator. He would then get started on making a huge batch of silver dollar pancakes. Does anything taste better than fresh pancakes cooked and eaten outside on a cool spring morning? We would often spread them with butter and sprinklings of brown sugar and cinnamon in lieu of syrup.
While lunches consisted of sandwiches and fruit easily carried and eaten on our trail hikes, dinner was traditionally a one-pot meal that could be cooked over the fire or on the stove. Sometimes we would have chili pie – corn bread baked on top of thick chili con carne in the Dutch oven – but the most common dinner was Hobo Stew. All the girls in my Camp Fire Girls group and many family friends became familiar with this dinner, as it was inexpensive and the recipe easily multiplied to feed as many mouths as necessary. Like many a housewife in the 1970s, my mom always had ground beef available and a pantry stocked with cans of vegetables. When the decision was made to head out camping, Hobo Stew was easy to plan and pack for.
When it was time to start dinner, either my sister or I would set to opening and draining cans of vegetables, and one of my parents would start cooking the meats. Along with the stew, we usually had flour tortillas that had been wrapped in foil and warmed near the coals of the fire. While simple, the stew always smelled wonderful and never failed to fill everyone up.
After dinner and cleanup we would frequently head out for an early moonlit walk, keeping quiet in the hope of seeing wildlife, before going back to have dessert and play a rousing game of Tri-ominos or Gin Rummy before bedtime. Sometimes the dessert would be more of my mom’s cookies, other times it might involve Banana Boats, baked apples, or good old Jiffy Pop popcorn. No matter what it was, it tasted wonderful when eaten outdoors surrounded by family.
While these days my husband and I are likely to grill steaks over our campfires, I have been known to cook up a pot of Hobo Stew and talk my son through a perfect batch of Banana Boats – before we all head out on a seldom-silent family moonlit walk.
First published June 2016