We cook enough hobo dinners that I felt a manifesto was in order. But what is a hobo and more importantly, what is a hobo dinner?
Hobos were tramps, homeless vagabonds/migratory workers in the late 18th and early 19th century U.S. One of the main characteristics I know of them is their bandana-on-a-stick packs, or bindle sticks, in which they carried belongings. Being nomads, I imagine cooking dinner had to be easy, with few accoutrements.
Five or six hobos join in this. One builds a fire and rustles a can. Another has to procure meat; another potatoes; one fellow pledges himself to obtain bread, and still another has to furnish onions, salt and pepper. If a chicken can be stolen, so much the better. The whole outfit is placed in the can and boiled until it is done. (The Wikis, on Mulligan Stew)
I’ve always been fascinated with the vagabond life romanticized in movies such as Into The Wild. In 2007 and 2008 a group of good friends and I went on long backpacking journeys in the Moab desert (photos from ‘07 and ‘08). Given my fascination with the tramp, it’s only fitting that I would enjoy making hobo dinners!
We also made hobo dinners on camping and Boyscout trips, because they’re easy to prepare and store ahead of time and very simple to cook. Anytime you plan on having a bonfire, you can certainly also plan to have hobo dinners!
At their most basic, hobo dinners include a protein, a couple of vegs, and potatos, all wrapped in a foil pouch with a small pad of butter and some salt and pepper. Since it’s all cooked together you get a great melding of flavors and since you cook it near an open fire (never in the fire) you get a good smokey flavor too.
Start by tearing off rectangles of heavy-duty aluminum-foil. Give yourself large enough pieces that you can pile up your ingredients and then roll the whole thing like a burito (more on the roll later). You’ll want one piece of foil per dinner.
Pre-cut all of your veggies and potatoes into bite-sized chunks. When selecting your ingredients, think of veggies that will survive a long cooking at a relatively low heat. High-density veggies are great, such as carrots. Onions should be a staple in your dinners. Garlic is also great to add.
A good trick for your potatoes is to add spices to them such as Old Bay, season salt, etc. Anything with a good, strong flavor, even a little spicy kick is good. Throw the cut potatoes in a large bowl with a dash of olive oil and the seasonings and toss it all to coat the potatoes good.
For convenience, we’ve used pre-made hamburger patties for the protein. You pay a bit more but if you’re making several, it really helps cut down prep time.
Plan for more veggies than you think you’ll need. You can always do a dedicated veggie-pack with any leftovers but it sucks to run out of veggies before you’ve made all your dinners!
One of the best skills I learned while working at Taco Bell was how to properly roll a burito. Here’s the hobo dinner/burito wrap secret technique (I’m trusing you with this secret):
Turn your foil length-wise, like you’re looking at a piece of paper. Fold the bottom of the foil up over the pile of food and then grap the pile with the bottom of the foil and pull the pile back towards you to tighten up the pile. Then fold over both sides as tight as you can without ripping the foil. Lastly fold or roll the pile straight with the rest of the foil. This is a decent image showing how to do this:
Things to keep in mind:
Here’s where most people go wrong when cooking with a campfire. You don’t need open flames—you really want red-hot coals and lots of them. Start your fire early and work it so that you keep a pile of hot coals. When you’re ready to start cooking, spread the coals out evenly and flattly and put your dinners right on the coals.
Have some tongs handy to turn your dinners every 15 minutes or so to get an even cook.
If you keep a small fire near (I often do), be careful not to over-cook any dinners close to the flame—you can rotate those more often and even rotate different (especially larger) dinners in and out of that area nearest the fire.
You’ll hear your dinners boiling inside the foil packs. The veggies and meat both (especially chicken) will give off water as they cook. This is normal.
It will take about an hour to fully cook. The carrots and potatoes are good indicators of a done hobo when they’re soft.
Bonus tip: this can also be done on a hot engine block. =)
Once they’re done cooking, you can put the dinner right on a paper plate, open it up and eat it right out of the foil. This keeps all the juices in the foil rather than soaking through your paper plate.