Thursday, February 14, 2013

Hobo Potatoes

I remember the potatoes and the woods and the time with my family. The smaller details? I get creative, though I do in fact recall some of the words we spoke.

One evening of my childhood, my family headed across the cornfield to the woods behind our home carrying a sack of potatoes and a large tin coffee can. Dad had matches in his pocket and old paper in hand. Reuben and Mandy, our dogs, trotted by his side.

We entered the woods by a worn path, rustling through the underbrush and crisp leaves in single file, As we journeyed to a small clearing, the sun’s fingertips still brushed the western horizon with a golden-red, fiery hue. We gathered some logs to use as benches around a stone fire pit, built a year or two before. Then Dad started a blaze. Small twigs were added as the flames grew.

The large coffee tin was placed in the middle of our fire. On this went the potatoes for our supper, wrapped in foil and one for each of us.

The last light vanished from the woods, and the glow from the fire spread as twilight descended, enveloping the little clearing. I trembled slightly, but not just from the sudden chill. The woods were eerie in the dark and every little bit there was a rustling of leaves by some living thing on the forest floor. For many minutes our family was silent. Then, as was common with us, we began conversing about our dreams for the future as the fire writhed around the coffee can and cooked our hobo potatoes.

“If I ever make it in this music business…” said Dad, but he was interrupted by some thought of his own and digested it for a bit before continuing, “If I ever make it, what would you guys want from our life here?”

Unanimously, we agreed we would buy that land from Mr. Warf with its fields and woods and lovely cold creek; Dad wanted to build a house on the big hill in the field someday. We talked of helping other people, too - especially at Christmas, but I don’t remember anything else my family said except for my brother’s wish. At the time he was eight, I believe.

“I want a car bed,” he said. “Like a race car bed. Billy had one.”

That may seem funny, but I suppose we all know what it is to be a child and think, I wish I could have that kitchen set Mary has or that big boy bike my friend John just got. The desire does not go away after we’ve outgrown the object we so long for, because we don’t get the chance to outgrow the desire, and we would outgrow it, of course, if our wish were granted.

But my parents listened like friends do and asked what color it would be. Red was the answer. After this there was a small silence that thrilled my little person as I sat facing the fire with my back to the dark forest, turning my head to each side every so often to check for spooks. Then our conversation began to wander like the breeze in the faded leaves of the trees, and Dad told us stories, making them up as he spoke.

When our hobo potatoes were finally cooked, Mom pulled out margarine, salt, pepper, paper plates and a can of pork n’ beans. We sat in the glow of the dying embers, the breeze cooling our potatoes for us, and ate our supper. Our dogs lay by, head on paws or lifted, ears moving in response to the occasional noise among the trees.

When Dad finally extinguished the fire completely and led the way from the woods, it seemed like ages past dark. We crossed the field for home and for bedtime, summer’s cornstalks crunching beneath our feet.

That sylvan autumn supper is something I’ve never forgotten. Maybe we did it once, or maybe it was tradition. Either way, it was my dad’s idea. He often came up with such things. Hobo potatoes and a warm fire in the woods are his inspiration, always having been a man of nature - a woodsman - at heart.


  1. I'm not an outdoor girl by any means, but there is something inspirational about being outside, especially in the woods. There's also something creepy about it, I think, but that could be because I'm afraid of the dark (and animals, and bugs, and zombies). I love the feeling of being outside, especially if there's a fire to sit beside and you can see the stars.

    I could totes go for some hobo potatoes right now. I think that's what I'm getting at.

    1. Ah, Nature. I do love her, but I see too little of her. Though I can be a little skittish while wandering about in her domain after dark.

      I, too, could go for hobo potatoes right now...or the fried potatoes my dad made for breakfast on a camping trip in the Idaho mountains. I guess what I'm trying to say is that the best potatoes I've ever eaten in my life were prepared in the great outdoors.

  2. Good memories, good memories. I still miss it.

    1. Me, too. How did we get stuck in the city? I need to write more posts about Tennessee. I had a dream recently about our home there. As a person who always LOVED hearing me rattle on and on and on about my dreams, I bet you can't wait for that one! Haha - I'll dedicate it to you, Papa!

  3. Hillary, I have often heard you mention this memory--or maybe you have written about it before? It made me think of the firepit that Brian recently bought and has been lighting periodically on our driveway. He and the kids always want hot cocoa and popcorn, and I always grumble about it because it certainly doesn't seem too close to nature having a fire in the driveway in our development! But you made me wonder what our kids will remember of those fires. Brian left for his deployment today, so I'm feeling sentimental tonight. (Camille)

    1. I wrote about it in one of our Mom's Group newsletters, but a better version appears here; I'm a better writer now because of the regimen of this blog.

      Your kids will remember those fires, a tradition that you and Brian built together. And being the generous supplier of hot cocoa and popcorn is a very important part.

      You and I are not ones for getting our kids lots of stuff, and I read recently a great reminder and inspiration for parents: The best gift you can give your kids is your time. It was in the Family Circus cartoon strip. A hard thing to act on sometimes. I'm trying to give more; I get so caught up in finshing my own tasks. But it's something we all understand is vitally important.


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