DINNER ON THE DINER – PART TWO

DINNER ON THE DINER – PART TWO

Hollister notes that dinner on THE PRESIDENT cost fifty cents; the menu consisted of oysters, cold and broiled meats, eggs, Welch Rarebit, coffee and tea. When THE PRESIDENT proved to be a huge success, Pullman immediately introduced two similar cars, named “WESTERN WORLD” and “KALAMAZOO”. These were placed in operation on the Michigan Central, a line later absorbed by the New York Central. Not long after, Pullman introduced “DELMONICO”, a train car named after the famous New York restaurateur, and placed in service on the Chicago, Alton and St. Louis Railroad on runs between Chicago and St. Louis. Dinner on “DELMONICO” was $1.00, considered a substantial sum at that time (1868).

“Pullman dining cars,” notes Hollister, “helped to add pleasure and comfort to a much heralded transcontinental excursion in May, 1870, from Boston to San Francisco under sponsorship of the Boston Board of Trade…”

Hollister adds, “By 1872 the rail trek from New York to San Francisco—a seven day journey if one did not stop enroute—was becoming popular and the convenience of diners added to the attraction….”

What a far cry this must have been, from the upwards of six months required to cross country in a covered wagon only a few decades before! (See Kitchens West, October/November 1998 through May/June 1999 issues of the CCE).

A personal account of traveling (and dining) cross-country by train was penned by Charles Nordhoff in the 1870s, providing us with a detailed, enthusiastic description of the author’s experience. In part, he writes, “…you sit at little tables which comfortably accommodate four persons; you order your breakfast, dinner, or supper, from a bill of fare which contains a quite surprising number of dishes, and you eat from snow-white linen and neat dishes, admirably cooked food and pay moderate price…”

Writes Hollister, “Dining cars were directly responsible for a major improvement in all railway passenger cars. Prior to the event of the diner, there were few reasons to walk from car to car on a train.

More and more passengers were patronizing dining cars, and since coaches were open ended, wooden conveyances, it became extremely hazardous for a passenger to make his way to the diner from a coach…”

Hollister continues, “Recognizing this difficulty, H.H. Sessions of the Pullman Company invented vestibuled cars with covered passageways on platforms of cars. Initially used in April, 1887 on the Pennsylvania Railroad, the cars soon became standard equipment on all railways….

“DINING BY RAIL” was such a mammoth undertaking, it’s a miracle Mr Porterfield was able to get it all compiled into one book. He collected more than 7,500 recipes (from which a little over three hundred are published in the book), corresponding with hundreds of people. As an example of how recipes eventually found their way to Mr. Porterfield, he explains how the recipes of the Great Northern Railway came from a chance meeting with an officer of the Railroadiana Collectors Association from whom he learned of a collector in Chicago who in turn referred him to two other collectors in Minnesota who had both a booklet of that railroad’s 1920s recipes and a pantry box containing another 300 recipes (be still my heart! A pantry box containing another three hundred recipes!!!!).

In the preface, Mr. Porterfield explains, “Edwin Kachel, for more than twenty-five years a steward in the dining-car Department of the Great Northern Railway, observe that ‘ on a dining car, three elements can be considered—the equipment, the employee, the passenger’. In other words, ‘the whole is constituted by two-thirds of human parts.”

James Porterfield notes that “What Mr. Kachel failed to mention was a fourth element of dining-car service: the food”.

The author feels that Mr. Kachel’s omission was understandable. He writes, “At a time when hundreds of passenger trains criss-crossed America daily, outstanding food was expected, even commonplace…”

Feeding passengers on public transportation today is a far cry from “those good old days”.

However, Porterfield states, “…but for those fortunate enough to have ridden America’s great passenger trains at their peak, no part of the experience survives so vividly in memory as a meal in the dining car…”

What follows, then, is the story behind the making of that experience, which began early in railroad history and reached a high point in 1930 when 1,732 railroad dining cards were registered with the Interstate Commerce Commission. (As a comparison, at the time Porterfield published his book in 1993, Amtrak was operating a total of 67 full diners nationwide. Possibly, the number is less today, in the year 2000).

The recipes presented in “DINING BY RAIL” were taken from 48 major intercity railroads. The author managed to collect over 7,500 recipes of which 325 were presented in his book.

Mr. Porterfield says that he wrote this book to preserve a record of one of the ways we used to eat, to help prevent us from losing these details of our heritage and our national experience.

Included in the book are lots of interesting old photographs and a wealth of historical information.

Will C. Hollister’s “DINNER IN THE DINER” contains 300 recipes from America’s era of great trains. In the Introduction, Spencer Crump, a writer who traveled on many of the railroads featured in the book, writes, “Dinner in the Diner once upon a time, was the high point of the trip. Railroads took great pride in serving meals on wheels and the condition of the car, with its shining interior and spotless napery, reflected this.”

The great trains, says Crump, usually served great food. It helped make their reputations and each railroad had its culinary specialty. And Hollister explains how railroads continually sought to improve their dining car facilities as a means to attract passengers from competing lines. Standard diners in the 1920s, claims Hollister, were 77 feet long and accommodated 36 passengers. The chef, with two assistants and a dish washer, (as in a person who actually washed the dishes) worked in a kitchen containing approximately 30 square feet.

(Porterfield describes the early Pullman diner car as equipped with a kitchen measuring 3×6 feet, a pantry, a wine cellar built into one end and a crew of 4 or 5, offering an extensive menu for its size. The Pullman hotel car carried 133 food items, a wine chest under the floor, 1,000 napkins and 150 table cloths, and the china, glassware and utensils needed to serve on a trip from 4 to 7 days in length.)

Before long—and with the advent of such civilized accommodations—women were joining in overnight travel. One such traveler, Lady Duffus Hardy, wrote a description of her trip in 1881, which included a visit to the kitchen. In part, she writes, “The kitchen was a perfect gem of a place about 8 feet square. A range ran along one side, its dark shining face breaking out into an eruption of knobs, handles, and hinges of polished brass or steel. Curious little doors were studded all over it. Pots, steamers, and pans were simmering on the top. Every requisite for carrying on the gastronomical operations were there in that tiny space in the neatest and most compact form”.

Dining car meals continued to evolve until, in the 1930s and 1940s, they seem to have achieved a culinary peak.

What could you expect to find, if you had dinner on a diner?
Well, it might depend on which train you were traveling on! Many of the Lines had their own particular specialties!

For example, on the California Zephyr (where reservations were taken by the hostesses, called Zephyrettes), you could order omelets seasoned four different ways, choose from seven recipes for poached eggs, have potatoes french fried, boiled, baked, mashed, hash-browned or Parisenne-style…you could choose from chops and cutlets, steaks, seafood cocktails or as many as 24 kinds of pie (Blueberry was the most expensive at 39 cents, while lemon meringue and pumpkin were cheapest at 17 cents each).

In an article by June W. Hayes, titled “All Aboard” which appeared in the Spring, 1999 issue of Lifestyle, the author says that travelers dined well, even during war years. Food was simple and at times less varied than in the best years, but, the author explains, impeccable service and preparation never slipped. Hayes provides recipes from long ago, illustrating how Beef Stroganoff was served on the Denver & Rio Grande Western, while Grilled Fillet of Lake Trout was served on the Baltimore and Ohio. On the Burlington Route, you might enjoy Apricot Chiffon Pie in Almond Pastry Shell, while on the Southern Pacific, their Caramel Nut Cake might be more to your liking.

You might have tried Oyster Bisque or Welsh Rarebit, if you were traveling on the Chesapeake and Ohio while, if you were on the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Line, you may have wanted totaste their Chesapeake Bay Oyster Pepper Pot or a New England Boiled Dinner. (The Chicago Rock Island and Pacific Railroad achieved fame early in its existence by the building, in 1856, the first railway bridge across the Mississippi River! According to Will C. Hollister, author of “DINNER IN THE DINER”, “the bridge initially was regarded as an engineering impossibility and its construction was threatened by legal action launched by steamboat owners!)

Even more amazing (you might want to make note of this for a trivia question), – among the attorneys who won the lawsuit for the Rock Island was Abraham Lincoln!

You might have enjoyed Chicken Cacciatore if you were traveling on the California Limited, which ran from Los Angeles to Chicago (or vice versa), or perhaps Braised Duck Cumberland might have tickled your fancy if you were traveling on the Super Chief. The B&O (Baltimore and Ohio) railroad offered many enticing dishes, ranging from Maryland Spoon Bread to Maryland Crab Cakes. Their chefs also featured, on the menu, Hungarian Goulash and Oyster Pie!

On the Canadian National, more than 6,000 pounds of prime rib were served monthly on THE SUPER CONTINENTAL and THE PANORAMA. Approximately 35,000 twenty-ounce cans of their famous plum pudding was prepared annually to meet the demands of passengers—but you might also have ordered their lobster salad, baked scallops or Fillet of Sole Florentine.

On the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Lines you might have asked for the Katy Special Onion Soup, while on the Nashville Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway, you might have ordered Fried Chicken with Cream Gravy. (no one knew anything about cholesterol levels in those days). The St Louis Southwestern Railway lines offered their specialty of Apricot Bavarian Cream while the Texas and Pacific Railway listed Buttermilk Pancakes and Cantaloupe Pie on their menu.

However, one of my very favorite train-food stories involves Bisquick! The product that “revolutionized” American eating habits originated on a Southern Pacific Train. Writes Porterfield in “DINING BY RAIL”, “…Carl Smith, an executive with one of General Mills’ companies, entered his dining car late one evening in November, 1930, and was astonished to find placed before him almost immediately a place of oven-hot fresh biscuits. Inquiring how these could be produced on such short notice, Smith learned from the chef that he blended lard, flour, baking powder and salt together and placed it in the ice chest for later use, thus saving valuable time during meal service. At a time when there were no mixes for cakes, rolls, or muffins, and breads were started from scratch, Smith had the presence of mind to recognize the commercial possibilities of such an idea. Work in a General Mills lab made a similar blend, one which would retain leavening power and yet not spoil when stored on the grocer’s or housewife’s shelf. Work in the marketing department gave it a name, ‘bis’ for biscuit, and quick, to give the tongue a twist around the second syllable that resulted, all at once, in a pun, a tribute, and an absolutely unforgettable trade name…”

I have in front of me, “DINNER ON THE DINER” compiled by the Junior League of Chattanooga, published in 1983, and ‘UTAH DINING CAR COOK BOOK” compiled by the Junior League of Ogden (Utah), published in 1984, – but I would be seriously remiss if I failed to mention “THE HARVEY HOUSE COOKBOOK”, subtitled Memories of Dining along Sante Fe Railroad, published in 1992, written by George H. Foster and Peter C. Weiglin. And, there are all those great recipes!

Shortly after World War II, rail travel gave way to automobiles, freeways, Route 66, and airline travel. Instead of spending three or four (or more) days and nights on a train to get to your destination, a few decades later you could board a plane – and enjoy a microwave ‘dinner’ served on a plastic tray. You’ll get where you’re going a lot faster—that’s indisputable—but will you get there better? As someone who travels frequently by air (always arriving at my destination exhausted and hungry for something good), the trade-off leaves something to be desired.

Next year, Bob & I are planning a train trip into the interior of Alaska. I’ll bring you up to date on train travel at that time!

For lots more information, and recipes—if I have whetted your appetite—refer to

DINING BY RAIL, by James D. Porterfield
DINING CAR LINE TO THE PACIFIC, by William A. McKenzie and
DINNER IN THE DINER by Will C. Hollister.

— Sandra Lee Smith

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