Lots of good food and a free train ride, too. Hoboes have it made. That was the conclusion of the vagabonds who wandered into my yard a few weeks ago. They didn't get a train ride, but the boat trip on picturesque Posey Lake was free.
I can't remember when hobo dinners became a grass roots trend in home entertaining. I know it was a long time ago because I hadn't tried it for at least 20 years, or even thought about it until this month.
There seem to be two versions of this style of a rustic outdoor meal. In some circles it must be traditional for everyone to bring something to add to the pot. At least when I made one call, the friend said he would bring turnips. When I discouraged that donation, he added, "rutabagas."
No, I furnish the contents for the pot.
The major hurdle of a hobo dinner is what utensil in which to cook the meats and vegetables. It is only natural for hosts to think that investing in a new galvanized garbage can is appropriate to the theme and functional for use afterward. But after years of warnings, people should know that is a dangerous decision. The problem is possible toxic poisoning from the galvanized can.
So scrap that idea and find something else. I cooked in a half-barrel beer keg, which was recycled specifically for hobo dinners by a friend, the late George Campbell, many years ago. He sawed the top of the heavy aluminum keg about four inches and fashioned a tight fitting lid and handle from the portion that was cut off. It's too bad someone hasn't put a similar product on the market; it's perfect for cooking. In the meantime, the deep turkey fryers are being used, though they are a small capacity for a large crowd. Lard cans also work if you know where to find one.
The portable propane burners that are used with turkey fryers work well to fuel the hobo dinner pot. I borrowed one because the beer keg was too big to put on the gas grill and having the pot lower than grill height made the food production more manageable.
It is crucial that there is easy access to the cooking pot. As easy as this style of dinner is, someone has to be responsible for adding the variety of meats and vegetables according to their cooking times.
Very likely real hoboes just throw everything in the pot at the same time, put the lid on, and let it all cook together. But if the different foods are added gradually according to individual cooking times, you are showing some degree of culinary knowledge and the results are far better.
One reason I believe our dinner turned out so well is that the carrots, potatoes, and onions were cooked separately in net bags. I coaxed two butchers out of netting that is used commercially to cover roasts. The stuff looks like a narrow long net stocking but it stretches. We cut off pieces to hold the vegetables and tied a knot at each end. The netting let the flavors mingle. I strongly recommend using it. I understand there are meat markets that sell cooking bags for the purpose.
I wrote a time schedule for the food entries. A boneless ham and fresh kielbasa were to be first in the pot with water. An hour later I figured the cabbage and onions should be added along with two cans of beer. The rationale was that cabbage often takes longer than we expect and onions add flavor.
But whatever cooking times on my chart went awry when guests Dale Adams, of Oak Harbor, and Scott Pierce, of Woodville, took over the pot and ignored my instructions. They added the whole scrubbed potatoes and carrots against my suggested time schedule. Jim Say got into my spice cupboard and contributed thyme, red pepper flakes, bay leaves, ginger, to the pot, and other things he wouldn't divulge. Water was added as deemed necessary.
Because of the short cooking time, the smoked sausage was added near the end and husked corn, which takes the shortest time, topped the layers in the pot. Whatever and however the volunteer hoboes put it together, the results were stellar. Each vegetable and meat was cooked to perfection and even the weird combination of seasonings were magically harmonious.
It was about a three-hour ordeal of fun, food, and camaraderie. Defined they are nothing more or less than a boiled dinner, but doing it outdoors with the aromas drifting from the pot when it's opened piques the excitement and appetites.
The traveling hobo theme continued into table service. Tables were covered with road maps. Each guest ate in a sturdy pie tin, not throw away foil ones, and had a red bandana handkerchief for a napkin. The centerpiece was an empty red coffee can with an arrangement of "flowers" picked roadside. I intended to get a train schedule to post on a tree but we can do that for the next dinner when-who knows - we may add turnips or rutabagas.