By Joe Nolan (From Street News Service)
The golden age of the American hobo dawned during the last decade of the 19th century. As the Industrial Revolution began its techno-cultural transformation of work and life in the United States–and the world–a number of wandering workers abandoned the security of home, family and steady employment for a self-reliant, vagabond existence, living by the hobo code to “decide your own life.”
Today, the image of a train-hopping hobo carrying a bindle stick (a cloth containing one’s belongings, tied to a stick) is a part of the country’s collective consciousness. Indeed, some itinerant workers still live the lifestyle today: the National Hobo Convention is celebrating its 111-year anniversary in Britt, Iowa this August. The convention kicks off with a parade and serves as a diverse celebration of the traveling worker under the motto: “Some in rags, some in tags, some in velvet gowns.”
The word “hobo” today may be seen in a derogatory light, but this understanding is incorrect. Although the origins of the word “hobo” are hard to trace, writers and etymologists have revealed possible meanings that also shed more light on the hobo’s day-to-day life. In his book Made in America, Bill Bryson suggests that the term evolved from a railroad greeting, “Ho, beau!” or that it was an abbreviation that stood for homeward bound. Both of these interpretations imply the life of a wandering worker, not simply a beggar or an itinerant ne’er do well. In The American Language, H.L. Mencken points out that “[a] hobo or bo is simply a migratory laborer; he may take some longish holidays, but sooner or later he returns to work.” Again we see that while the hobos valued their freedom, it was a freedom that was won through self-reliance and shared values within the greater hobo community.
Along with a code of ethics and a system of written symbols that allowed wandering hobos to leave messages for one another on their travels, American hobos developed a unique spoken vocabulary that took on a particular flourish when it came to addressing one of a hobo’s persistent concerns: his next meal. A hobo seeking “bullets” for his “banjo” was looking to put beans in his cooking pan. A wandering worker new to a town might “call in” on a fellow hobo, hoping to cook up his “gump.” In other words, he wanted to share a campfire in order to prepare a scrap of meat.
Hobo cookery tells a lot about the hobo life and the men who lived–and continue to live–it. It is also an outdoor, camping, culinary tradition with a long history that still finds echoes among outdoor enthusiasts, contemporary hobos, and homeless people in America today.
Many Americans start the day with a hot cup of coffee, and after a long night of camping out, the hobos of yesteryear and the homeless men and women on our streets today love the brew, too. In these days of paying more than a few dollars for a daily dose of the gourmet good stuff, affording one’s morning coffee can present more than a challenge for someone living on the street. In addition, trying to pull together your own brew without the benefit of a kitchen can be just as daunting. During the days of the hobo, our vagabond heroes took a page from their Western brothers, brewing up a camp side cup with a technique borrowed from cowhands camping out with their herds. The beauty of the recipe is that it dispenses with hard-to-find coffee filters, boiling the brew down to its most basic components: coffee, water, and heat. After adding coarse-ground coffee and water to a pot, a pan or even a coffee can, the resourceful hobo would bring his brew to a boil and then take it off the heat to simply let it sit. Once the agitated grounds had settled to the bottom of the brew, one could pour the dark, delicious stuff off the top and enjoy a great wake-up before greeting the adventure of a new day.
Today, the recipe is still popular with people who live on Nashville’s streets. “It’s called cowboy coffee,” explains Jim Bo, a homeless man in Nashville who knows all about the challenges of improvising a meal on the streets or in an urban camping environment. According to Bo, simplicity is the key to a camp wake-up: “Build a fire and get a pot of water and some coffee.”
But just because the hobos of the past were independent vagabonds doesn’t mean that they didn’t enjoy options. In fact, in the hobo mindset, a life of free-wandering and self-reliance created expectations of more freedom and options than domesticity and wage-slavery could offer. So, hobos who didn’t have a taste for coffee often opted for a fragrant tea whipped up from plentiful pine needles. To brew Pine Needle Tea, one only needed a handful of pine needle clusters, a quart of boiling water. a bit of lemon juice, and some maple syrup, if desired.
1. Chop needles using pocket knife
2. Add needles & lemon to boiling water
3. Cover and steep
4. Sweeten and sip
While no hobo could live on bread alone, a long day of riding the rails was certainly helped along by a simple mouthful of Bannock Bread. This elemental recipe was brought to the states by fur traders from Scotland in the early 1800s. A similarly itinerant subculture, traders needed a hearty bread that could travel well, offering both important calories as well as flexible preparations. Consisting of just flour, baking powder, oil, water and a pinch of salt, the simple dough could be scooped into a pan to make small cakes or–in a pinch–it could be squeezed around the end of a whittled stick and held over hot coals to bake. Once the bread had browned it could be pulled from the stick to make room for another round or simply eaten like a starchy lollipop right off the stick.
For Nashvillians like Bo, baking bread is a low priority when it comes to procuring a day’s worth of nutrition. “If I’m camping or traveling, I eat a lot of cold chili out of the can, or beans,” he said. “If it’s wintertime, I’ll make a fire and cook some hamburger and make some burritos.” However, whipping up a hot meal is not without its risks. “When people see fire and smoke they come to investigate.” Bo’s camp-cooked burritos offer up a tasty, healthy, affordable meal that also suits a life on the move. “Tortillas are more packable than bread. They’re already smashed flat.”
Accessible, convenient ingredients were also important to the original hobos, and plentiful, wild herbs like stinging nettles found their way into most well-traveled camping pots. While picking fresh stinging nettles can be a painful experience for the uninitiated, the prickly plants are the key ingredient for a classic hobo recipe: Nettle Soup. Nettles are easily found in a number of varieties all over the United States. Most of these varieties are perennial herbaceous plants and while it’s wise to use caution when harvesting them, they are a safe, delicious ingredient in a number of recipes around the world. Being careful to wear gloves or other protection when picking the leaves, all one needed was a pan of water and a salt shaker to have a delicious-and highly nutritious-meal. For Nettle Soup, use a pound of washed, chopped/torn nettles in a quart of water, and salt to taste.Simply boil all the ingredients together until the nettles go soft and the stinging hairs are rendered harmless. The soft, green leaves are left floating in a delicate, earthy broth jammed with iron, serotonin and vitamins just begging to be made into a Mulligan Stew!
Mulligan Stew was a communal, potluck recipe that consisted of anything a hobo or a group of hobos might have been able to pull from their bindles. The concoction was really an improvised Irish Stew, the term “Mulligan” being commonly applied to any Irish-American in the early 1900s. Ideally, the recipe would include some type of meat and a few potatoes along with anything else that could find its way into the pot. The Appalachian Burgoo was a Southeastern variety of the dish that often incorporated a handy squirrel or an opossum when lady luck smiled upon a hobo.
Of all the challenges that a wandering worker or any homeless person must face, gathering up one’s daily bread is one of the most difficult and the most crucial. In the heyday of the American hobo, it was a challenge met with ingenuity, originality and tasty, invigorating results. Utilizing improvised techniques and unlikely ingredients, America’s original wandering workers kept their bellies full and their spirits high, and their contribution to the American cookbook still informs the fireside meals of everyone from contemporary campers to Nashville’s homeless population today.
The secret ingredient in all of these recipes is the sense of accomplishment that is embedded in every simple bite that has been passed down from the original hobos. A tasty meal by a fire provided actual sustenance, but it also served as a testament to the hobo worldview that an independent man left to his own devices could turn his back on modern society and not only survive, but thrive in a life shot-through with dynamic, moving freedom.
Find out more about the hobos through this great read: The Hobo Handbook: A Guide to Living by Your Own Rules (Adams Media, 2011) by Joshua Mack. Find out more about the National Hobo Convention here: brittiowa.com/hobo/events.htm