Hobo Packs: A Culinary Treat For Old Time's Sake

May 12, 2013

Janet's 'hobo pack' designer beans
Credit Norman Van Aken
We flew up to join the family to celebrate my Mother-in-Law’s 90th (!) Birthday Celebration. When our family gets together we, like many families, get straight to the heart of the matter. What are we cooking?! What are we eating?!

“Mom” Amsler was not an actual pot slinger this day but the Senior-most trusted advisor!

She..along with her lovable but departed husband Irv... gave the world eight amazing children. Every child, grandchild and...with Audrey Quinn Van Aken... great grandchild was on hand to surround her with a rightful ‘Birthday Gusher of Love’!

My mother was a Girl Scout leader and my sisters both Girl Scouts. A lot of my passion for cooking came from the campfire meals we made during my pre-teenage years each summer at “Camp Potawatomi”.

Among the things I learned back then about cooking...in ‘camping mode’...are called ‘Hobo Packs’.

What you do is wrap foods in aluminum foil and then tuck them into the ashes of a well- made campfire. We learned to make fires during those weeks. Boy did we! If you didn’t you went hungry.

By the way, I didn’t learn until writing this very show that in the Potawatomi language, they generally call themselves Bodéwadmi, a name that means "Keepers of the Fire".

Whoa... that’s cool…!

Often the foods in a Hobo Pack are the “sides”. That means the more active part of the campfire is freed up. The food up there on the grill get that astonishingly delicious char from the lashings of flame caramelizing them... while, down below, the Hobo Pack goods take on a subtle infusion of smoke while allowing for a kind of exchange of flavors you get in more slowly cooked foods.

The dish we brought ‘Mom Turns 90’ was Daughter Janet’s “Designer Beans”. Actually they are not fancy... but they are so very delicious!

Due to TSA carry-on restrictions these days... and I respect the intent if not the logic...we had to add the beans and other wet elements to our Hobo Packs after our arrival in Illinois.

But we did have a virtual ‘flavor bomb’ in our carry ons. Its power hurt no one... save those faint of heart regarding the fire in chilies. It was a mix of Chipotles en Adobo mixed with Cumin, Brown Sugar and various...um...secret... spices.

I learned long ago that a bit of a show is as much a part of rocking the guests as them eating the actual foods!

So we unloaded our ‘Hobo Pack’ with ceremony in front of our kitchen mates. ;)

I had few illusions that it mattered to the re-connecting aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, grand aunts, third cousins, and close friends in the noisy Family Room.

Janet joined her Sister Meg at Meg’s four-burner stove and cooked smoky Nueske’s bacon in a heavy, black iron pan. Then she added chopped scallions into some of the reserved bacon fat. Next came the Hobo Pack. The aromas hitting the bacon caused heads to turn (!) Lastly she spooned in the darkly concentrated beans and stirred it all up. Janet put that in a passed-down-the-generations, earthenware dish and parked it in a moderate oven for an hour or more.

Though the weather was pretty nice (nearly 50 degrees!) we knew that even if we were in the middle of a deeper cold snap… members of our clan would be out at the Family Barbeque Pit... just like “Father Irv” had shown us years ago... jockeying meaty ‘St. Louis’ ribs, marinated, farm-fresh chickens, fat Wisconsin bratwurst and maybe even Lake Trout around the fire.

We ate the Birthday Feast... including those delicious “Hobo Pack Designer Beans’...

And then we all raised a glass and praised the woman who brought us together as Family!

Norman Van Aken, @ Copyright, All rights reserved

28 ounces of your favorite, (canned), (We use Bush’s Original) baked beans
½ pound smoked bacon, (we use Nueske’s)
1 bunch scallions, chopped, white and green parts
¼ cup (Heinz) ketchup
¼ cup brown sugar
1 Tablespoon dark brown sugar

In a large pan, fry the bacon until almost crisp. Pull out with a slotted spoon onto paper
towels. Add the scallions to the pan and fry until wilted. Again pull out onto paper
towels. In a bowl, stir all the ingredients together until mixed. Pour the beans mixture
into a heavy crock and bake in a 250 oven for 1 hour.