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The Romance And History Of ‘Dining By Rail’

Enjoying a gourmet meal in a well-appointed dining car was part of the allure of traveling by rail, but in the 1850s that elegant experience wasn’t afforded to train travelers. Instead, passengers either packed their own baskets of food or exited the train when it stopped at a depot to hurriedly gobble down often bad meals from less than reputable vendors.

Train pausing at depots offering "20 minutes for refreshments" typically resulted in chaos and discontent in the late 1800s [Association of American Railroads/James Porterfield]

“There was a lot of chicanery that went on, where the operator of the eating house would serve the food just as the passengers were ordered to re-board the train,” said rail historian and gourmet cook James Porterfield. “As one passenger said: ‘Watching them put it under the counter, I just know they’re going to sell that to the next group of suckers.’”

Entrepreneurs peddling coffee and fried chicken to passengers on a Chesapeake & Ohio Railway train pausing in Virginia. [Association of American Railroads/James Porterfield]

In “Dining by Rail: The History and Recipes of America’s Golden Age of Railroad Cuisine,” published by St. Martin’s Griffin imprint, author James Porterfield said rail operators realized that bad dining experiences and slowdowns that came with halting the train to allow passengers to disembark proved to be a failing system. So they created a way to feed the passengers themselves. The first car with a kitchen came in the 1860s and was followed by the first actual dining car in 1867.

Portfield heads to Sugarcreek next week for stop at the Age of Steam Roundhouse Museum, a 34-acre facility housing 22 steam locomotives, a depot, and other elements of a working railroad.

Early dining car kitchen,  introduced  in the late 1860s, beginning the slow adoption of such equipment on railroads whose trains in the post-Civil War era traversed entire regions of the country. [James Porterfield]

Making meals on a train presented a special set of problems, beginning with mastering cooking on a moving vehicle. Having a properly stocked pantry was also a challenge.

“It was generally a demerit for the chef and the steward if they had to buy food en route. They could wire ahead to a station and say, ‘hey, we need five dozen more eggs. We're going to be there at 8:20. Would you have them at the station?’ That was frowned on because it increased the cost. Another thing that the railroad tried to watch and discipline the workers on was the idea of wastage. If it was perishable food, the goal was to use it up in the trip. You could put a couple of bottles of ketchup that you didn't use on a shelf and use them on the next trip, but you couldn't do that with fresh cantaloupe,” Porterfield said.

The staff also dealt with space considerations.

Diagram of a dining car that seated as many as 36 passengers shows the layout typical between the 1870s and 1930s, when lightweight streamlined equipment replaced the "heavyweight" cars of old. [James Porterfield]

“Chefs worked in the kitchen that was eight-feet wide by 18-foot long, and there were four of them in there. Elsewhere there were six different men serving as waiters, and then there would be a steward,” Portfield said.

There was just one attendant in a coach or sleeping car, so the larger staff a dining car required caused them to be money losers. However, the train operators used the cars as a marketing tool, playing up their opulence and fine dining options. The train systems wanted to give diners an experience similar to eating in a first-class hotel. Porterfield said operators would hire the nation’s best chefs to create signature dishes, which they would then teach the staff to make. Items ranged from Pennsylvania Railroad’s “Deviled Roast Beef with Mustard Sauce,” to Illinois Central’s “Potatoes Romanoff,” to “New Corn Chowder, Southern Style,” made by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway Company.

Porterfield said railroads took advantage of regional differences in cuisine.

Regional cuisine was showcased on trains. Illinois Central Railroad's Chicago-New Orleans "Panama Limited," Shrimp Creole, Seasoned Cole Slaw, and Lima Beans Baked in Mustard Sauce. [Illinois Central Gulf Railroad/James Porterfield]

“The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, which connected generally the East Coast north of Washington to the Midwest. They only served saltwater seafood on their westbound trains, but on their eastbound trains it was all freshwater seafood, because it was from the Great Lakes or the Mississippi. There was also the Illinois Central, which ran from New Orleans to Chicago. They had a number of Cajun specialties on their menu,” Porterfield said.

The golden age of the dining car began to wane as the Great Depression and World War II brought about restrictions on travel as well as goods. Porterfield said, after the war ended, train operators made an effort to re-establish rail as a primary means of passenger transportation, but they came to realize the United States had become an automobile society.

Porterfield said there are no private luxury trains with dining cars operating in the United States. However, you can still enjoy a fine-dining experience on a train.

“We do have private dinner trains. There are about 80 or 90 of them that run on excursion railroads like the Strasburg Rail Road in Strasburg, Pennsylvania that has a dinner train operation. In Canada, there is still the Rocky Mountaineer, which is a luxury excursion train and high cuisine that is emphasized on that train,” Porterfield said.

[James Porterfield]

Jim Porterfield discusses “Dining by Rail: The History and Recipes of America’s Golden Age of Railroad Cuisine” at the Age of Steam Roundhouse Museum in Sugarcreek on Jan 15 at 6:00 p.m.

Listen to Dan Polletta's full conversation with Jim Porterfield  



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