By Joyce Hollyday
My memories of childhood family camping trips swirl around discomfort and disaster: rocky ground and a leaky air mattress, a skunk ambling through our campsite at dinner time, the hurricane that pelted us with rain and blew over our tent in the middle of the night, a sneak attack by a swarm of black flies the size of blue jays. But in every summer misadventure, there was always one moment of grace. Amid the endless parade of canned-soup suppers heated to either lukewarm or scalding over the camp stove, there was always a night when we fixed “hobo stew.”
Let me begin with a couple of disclaimers. First, the name of my favorite family recipe is tinged with offense toward migratory workers who were both vilified and idealized. When I was too young to know better, I dressed one Halloween as a “hobo”—with torn clothing, a sooty face, and a pack made from a red bandana tied around a broomstick. God, have mercy. And second, red meat has not been a staple in my diet since the late 1970s. But, nonetheless, this recipe carries a unique sacredness for me.
On the special night, Dad would send my two sisters and me out from our campsite into the woods to find kindling. When we had gathered a big bundle, we carried it back and he started a fire. Mom chopped up potatoes, carrots, and onions. She put a pile of each onto a square of aluminum foil with some ground beef, and then we helped her roll up the packets. We all sat together around the blazing fire and sang songs my sisters and I had learned at church camp until the blaze settled to glowing embers. Then Dad put on the food and we waited for it cook. About twenty minutes later, we opened the steaming packets and relished eating our always-a-little-crunchy but delicious dinner doused with ketchup.
Afterward, once my sisters and I were snuggled into our sleeping bags in the tent listening to the scary noises of the night, Mom would read us verses from the Bible by flashlight and offer a prayer for safety and good rest. It was the only time of the year I remember her reading the Bible and praying with us, I guess because she really was concerned about our well-being in those isolated patches of woods all across the northeastern U.S.
Six years ago when my mother was dying, deep into dementia, my sisters and I moved her to the farm where I was living to care for her. We set up her hospital bed in the living room by the picture window, in view of the fireplace. Though she had never been there before, and hadn’t recognized her daughters in more than two years, when her head hit the pillow she smiled at us and said, “I’m home.”
Mom wasn’t swallowing well, and when we asked the hospice nurse what was best for her to eat, she told us, “Ground beef is good. And pureed vegetables.” We bought a couple pounds of hamburger and bags of Mom’s favorite vegetables: potatoes and carrots. But on the third night when we tried to feed her, she refused the food. Soon she was also shaking her head and turning away when we tried to give her anything to drink. She was clearly ready and moving on. We read her psalms and sang hymns, turned her, kept her lips moist and eased her pain.
“What are we going to do with all the ground beef, potatoes, and carrots?” became the question for my sisters and me. I think we all began laughing about the same moment. We dug out some aluminum foil, located an onion and a bottle of ketchup, stoked the fire in the fireplace, and began chopping.
In our middle age, we had grown astute enough to know that our dinner would be more palatable if we boiled the vegetables a bit first. The embers were just right. We shared perfect “hobo stew” by firelight, laughing together as we recounted our long string of camping catastrophes while Mom snored lightly beside us.
Two weeks after we brought her to the farm, Mom left us. My sisters and I, bone-weary and grateful, gathered around her bed and held hands. We offered prayers through our tears that our mother would have a safe journey and find good rest.
This is part of a series on cooking and discipleship. Send your recipes and stories to firstname.lastname@example.org.