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Hobo House home cookin’

By Staff | Aug 12, 2011

Mary Jo Hughes delivers an order at the Hobo House, which she owns and operates in Britt. She has been preparing for this week’s annual Hobo Convention in town.

BRITT – Experienced travelers know where the good food is, no matter where their journeys take them, and the unforgettable characters who are gathering in Britt this week for the 111th National Hobo Convention know there’s one place not to be missed – Mary Jo’s Hobo House.

“These folks have lived the authentic hobo life, and many of them have become very close friends of mine,” said Mary Jo Hughes, a Britt native who has owned and operated the Hobo House since 1994.

Filled with portraits and hand-written signatures, the walls of the Hobo House reflect the lives and unique stories of these hobos, from “Steam Train Maury” to “Connecticut Tootsie,” whose personalities are just as colorful as their names.

Hughes is looking forward to reconnecting with her long-time friends over a good meal during the national convention, which attracts 100 to 120 hobos each year.

Like many talented cooks, Mary Jo Hughes learned the art and science of meal preparation from her mother and Bohemian grandmother, but she didn’t stop there.

Mary Jo Hughes said her Grandmother Wellik lived on a farm, near Duncan, and often baked these brownies for her 38 grandchildren.

“I always wanted to return to my hometown and have my own restaurant,” said Hughes, who cut her teeth in the business, at 13, when she began working at the local A&W. After 11 years, she went on to a 15-year career with Hy-Vee, where she managed the deli departments at stores from Fort Madison to Charles City.

Hughes still remembers the day in 1994 when she decided the time was right to strike out on her own. She called a real estate agent back home, and he mentioned that the Hobo House had just come up for the sale the day before.

Within several days, Hughes made an offer on the restaurant, and she opened for business on July 14.

While the Hobo House is a popular destination during the National Hobo Convention, it’s also busy every day of the week with local residents. From Monday through Friday, Hughes opens for breakfast at 5:30 a.m. and is usually met by six or seven early birds, including retired farmers.

Then another group of men stops by around 7 a.m., followed by the “coffee ladies” who arrive at 8:30 a.m.

“Mom used to make a ton of these,” said Mary Jo Hughes, when describing Burnt P-Nuts, a bar food classic. She noted that her family found this recipe in a cookbook years ago.

“It’s fun, because you become an extended family,” said Hughes, who also runs a catering business and works 75 to 80 hours a week.

Patrons said they love Hughes’ famous hobo hashbrowns, sloppy joes and gigantic breaded tenderloins that are twice the size of the bun.

They also look forward to the homemade casseroles and salads that Hughes prepares for her lunch buffet every Thursday. “I just serve whatever strikes my fancy,” said Hughes, who makes everything from meatloaf to tater-tot casserole.

While she enjoys watching the Food Network for culinary inspiration, Hughes still treasures recipes from her Grandma Wellik, a Duncan-area farm wife who wrote many of her recipes in Czech and rated them “good,” “great,” or “really bad.”

It’s not uncommon for Hughes to prepare some of her family’s favorite dishes at the Hobo House. “Family means a lot to me and I love being able to live and work in my hometown.”

Burnt P-Nuts

1 cup sugar

1 / 2 cup water

1 bag raw peanuts

Put all ingredients in a skillet, cook over heat and stir until water is gone. Put nut mixture on greased pan and bake at 300 degrees for 15 minutes.

Turn peanuts, and bake 15 more minutes. Cool and enjoy.

Grandma Wellik’s


(Mary Jo’s Grandmother Wellik lived on a farm, near Duncan, and often baked these brownies for her 38 grandchildren.)

2 eggs

1 1/2 cups brown sugar

1/2 cup melted margarine

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/3 cup hot water

1 1/2 cups flour

3 tablespoons cocoa powder

1/2 cup milk

1/2 cup nuts (optional)

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Cream together the eggs, brown sugar and margarine. Combine the baking soda and hot water. Add to the egg mixture.

Add remaining ingredients and stir well. Pour batter into a greased 9-by-13-inch pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes. Frost with your favorite icing.

Cukes and onions

(Mary Jo Hughes said her mother would keep these on hand in a big gallon jar in her refrigerator.)

6 cups of cucumbers, peeled and sliced thin

1 large onion, sliced thin

3 tablespoons salt

Sprinkle cucumbers and onion with salt. Soak for 1 hour. Drain.

Mix together:

2 cups sugar

1 cup vinegar

1 tablespoon dill seed

2 tablespoons celery seed

1 tablespoon mustard seed

Pour mixture over cucumbers and onions. Keep refrigerated.

Macaroni salad

(Mary Jo Hughes often serves this classic salad at the Hobo House in Britt. This salad makes a large batch and is best if you make it a day ahead, she said.)

2 bags elbow macaroni, cooked

3 grated carrots

1 large green pepper, chopped

1 large onion, chopped

1 can Eagle brand milk

3 cups mayonnaise

3/4 cup sugar

1/2 cup vinegar

Salt and pepper, to taste.

Combine all ingredients and refrigerate.

Rhubarb custard cake

(This family recipe was a tried-and-true favorite with Mary Jo Hughes’ grandmother and mother.)

1 box yellow cake mix

4 cups chopped rhubarb

1 pint whipping cream

Prepare the cake mix according to package directions. Pour into prepared 9-by-13-inch pan. Cover batter with rhubarb.

Sprinkle 1 cup sugar over rhubarb. Pour whipping cream over the ingredients in the pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 50 to 60 minutes until cake springs back.


Queen’s salad

(This favorite recipe came from an old cookbook that belonged to Mary Jo Hughes’ mother.)

60 crushed Ritz crackers

1 1/2 sticks margarine, melted

1/4 cup powdered sugar

1 can sweetened condensed milk

1 6-ounce can frozen lemonade

8 ounces frozen whipped topping

Mix half of the crackers and all of the margarine and sugar together. Put in an 8.5-by-11-inch pan.

Combine sweetened condensed milk and lemonade. Then add whipped topping. Spoon mixture onto crisp. Sprinkle with remaining cracker crumbs.

You can contact Darcy Dougherty Maulsby by e-mail at yettergirl@yahoo.com.

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