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Cowboy comfort food

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"In those days, a train's crew had five members instead of two. There was an engineer, conductor, brakeman, flagman, and fireman. I was a flagman. The caboose was our living room, dining room, and bedroom," he said. "It had an icebox, a writing table or desk, and a couple of benches covered with hide and stuffed with horsehair. Then there were kerosene lanterns and a coal stove. No matter how hot it was outside you had to have a fire in the stove for coffee."

"What did the crew eat?" I asked.

"There was always beef stew simmering on the stove," he said. "Either that or a big pot of Johnny Marzetti."

His eyes glazed over. Perhaps all this reminiscing was making him hungry. He touched the brim of his hat, wished us a good hike, and moseyed on down the trail.

Ralph and I stood watching the cowboy and his horse disappear behind a screen of manzanita and alligator juniper. Then we turned, looked at each other, and said in unison, "Johnny Marzetti?"

Neither of us had ever heard of it. When I got home I switched on the computer and typed the name of the dish into a search engine. Within seconds, I was instantly rewarded with hundreds of results.

I soon learned that Johnny Marzetti is a casserole. The original recipe came from Marzetti's restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, which was founded by Teresa Marzetti after she immigrated to the US from Italy in 1896. She began serving the casserole in the 1920s and named it after her brother-in-law.

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