Caption: Hobos walk the rails during the Great Depression (photo credit: Life Magazine)
My daughter is obsessed with "choo-choos" right now. We live in a town bisected by train tracks and at any given time it seems there is a train whistle, either very distant or sometimes quite close. And Aster's eyes grow wide and she says "choo choo" whenever she hears a whistle.
She has the same love of choo-choos that I had as a kid and still have today.
I stumbled upon this website recently about the best ways to "hop a freight train." No, I don't recommend you try it.
But the romanticism remains and it occurred to me that railroad hobo culture and the Amish have more in common than one might think at first blush. At its essence, one doesn't REALLY need much to live richly. Shelter, food, and friendship is really all one needs. Our capitalist culture has created all sorts of items people "must" have, but we don't really need them. So the idea that there is some world of harmless hobos right under our noses, clinging to the tracks and the railyards, with their own food, folkways and friendships is appealing. And that is the appeal of the Amish, too, isn't it? An insular culture within our midst that is back-to-basics. And both the hobo culture and the Amish culture are over-romanticized. In reality, being a hobo is probably dangerous, lonely, and hunger-filled. In reality, Amish life is much more difficult than the postcard panoramas we see on calendars.
Hobos were itinerant workers who generally rode the rails in search of work. Some estimates have put the number of hobos at 500,000 at the turn of the last century but their ranks have thinned greatly in today's world with the availability of increased government assistance, tighter rail-yard security, and an economy that is less labor reliant. Hobos experienced a boost in their ranks during the Great Depression when work was scarce and riding on the rails (as a sneaky hobo) was free. I remember hearing stories when I was a kid about hobos that passed through town during the Depression. My great-grandmother's house was near a rail-line and apparently they discovered my great-grandmother was a good cook with a kind heart. Hobos would stop by her house for a meal. One of them scrawled a small arrow on the sidewalk in front of her house so other hobos would know this was a safe stop. I imagine that the type of supper this recipe made was popular with hobos and hobo hostesses alike because it was hearty, easy-to-assemble, and could feed a quick crowd. That's probably the qualities that eventually made the recipe appealing in Amish kitchens. The first recipe was in our first cookbook, The Original Amish Cook Cookbook.
Rachel made this dish last night. Like other recipes we have featured lately, this is a hearty, stick-to-your-ribs casserole which is perfect for these seemingly never-ending cold days. There are a couple of variations on the "hobo supper." A second one, that appeared in Lovina's column a couple of years ago, appears below it. A picture of our meal and some process shots are below also. Yum!
SIMPLE HOBO SUPPER
6 hot dogs, sliced
6 medium potatoes, precooked
2 tablespoons of onions, cut fine
1 /4 cup of butter
1 pint of peas
1 can cream of mushroom soup
Stir into a casserole dish. Bake at 350 for 30 minutes.
HEARTY HOBO SUPPER