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Ruminations - "Dinner In The Diner"

Ruminations - "Dinner In The Diner"

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So, how did we end up here?

It’s all due to the evils of eBay. One of my standard searches is for dining car items in the Railroadiana subsection of the Transportation category of Collectibles. Are you still with me there? Stay close; it’s easy to get lost on eBay…

On any given day, there are a good number of items listed with everything from paper menus to linen table cloths to china plates to all kinds of silver utensils and serving pieces. Heck, if you really want to get serious, there’s even a full sized dining car for sale! (Not that I would recommend this one, there are others out there on the market in better shape…) Over the last few years, I’ve added a few items now and then for use on some of those private railroad car trips.

The most recent treasure I located is dated January 1, 1940. Pocket-sized, it was once a corner-stone tool for it’s owner, Isaac Johnson. Number 189 out of an issued of 500, this is a very special little cloth tape bound book – the Southern Pacific Company – Special Recipes for Guidance of Chefs on Dining Cars – Dining Car, Hotel, Restaurant and News Service Department. 200 plus pages of the secrets of great meals that were enjoyed by travelers all along the routes of the railroad and it’s empire. Consider that at one time, that empire included dining cars, lunch counter cars, hamburger grill cars, ferryboats, steamships, lunch counters and restaurants in stations, crew points and more! Feeding us was one big effort, and the railroad knew how to do it. Do it right, and be as cost effective as possible, too.

I have a genuine respect for the men (and women!) who worked in this kind of service. It took a lot of hard work before, during and after meals to provide what they did. I’ve had my own experience cooking aboard the train, but nothing even close to what they did.

Many of these folks have shared their experiences through oral histories or articles in newspapers and magazines. Some of the better are:

Those Pullman Blues” by David Perata. A great collection of tales of life aboard the train as one of the onboard crew (porter’s, waiter’s, bartenders and more). Honest, informative, funny and poignant stories.

Dining By Rail” by James D. Porterfield. Jim offers a great look at the nuts and bolts of dining car service from the earliest days right up to Amtrak with lots of great recipes from railroads across the country. He also writes a column for Railroad & Railfan Magazine called “On The Menu”.

A local favorite of mine here in the Bay Area is Thomas C. Flemming. Well respected as a journalist, he is a co-founder of the Sun-Reporter, Northern California's largest weekly African-American newspaper. One of his earlier professions was as a dining car cook with the Southern Pacific out of Oakland between 1927 and 1932. This web link has a series of columns he has written including a look at dining car service. It was no picnic and he doesn’t pull punches. This was a hard life and he tells it like it that.

Chef Melvin Pierson (ctr.), Cannis Elie (l.) and Oliver Medlock
prepare for rush of patrons as the "Daylight" prepares
to pull out of San Francisco for Los Angeles. (1945)

This photo gives you a glimpse of the cramped space in which a the cooks of a dining car worked their magic. It was hot, noisy and busy, busy, busy. Think three meals a day and the serving as many passengers as wanted to eat. In a 48-seat dining car, it was not uncommon to serve 300 passengers for a meal, and then the crew aboard the train as well! That’s at least six seatings, and off of a full menu of choices.

From the passenger perspective, you might make a request from the dining car steward to dine at a particular meal. On the Southern Pacific, Breakfast was served from 7:00 to 9:30 A.M., Luncheon was served from 12:00 to 2:30 P.M., and Dinner was served from 5:30 to 9:00 P.M. If space was available at a table, the steward would seat you. You would be handed a menu and he would place your meal check on the table with a pencil. As waiters were not permitted to take verbal orders, guests would write their meal selections. The waiter would then confirm the selections and then proceed to the pantry to place the order.

What most passengers never saw was the drama that unfolded to get that order completed and back out to the table. In the pantry,

Tempting choices, reasonably priced from this vintage menu on the secondary trains of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe circa 1954.

And for each one of those choices, the railroad had specific instructions. Not only the recipe, but what kind of plate and garnish was to be used.

Take for example, the following from that Southern Pacific’s 1940 Special Recipes:

“Chicken Pot Pie, Old Fashioned

Boil chicken, skin disjoint and bone. Arrange one-half in deep pie dish, garnish with a slice of hard-boiled egg, some carrots, turnips and celery cut small and cooked in broth. Cover with sauce made of chicken stock. Make a soft dough from biscuit blend, scoop from same a large dumpling, drop in center of dish and steam or bake under cover from ten to fifteen minutes. Sprinkle with chopped parsley.”

Now, in your home kitchen that wouldn’t be too difficult, right? Try this. Imagine a kitchen that is maybe two and a half feet wide, and some fifteen feet long. Instead of a single cook, you would find the chef, a second, third and fourth cook. Each one had his own duties. And if you were unlucky enough to be the fourth cook, you also had to wash all of the dishes used in the dining car as well as the kitchen cooking pots and pans. And the stove you cooked on? For many years, that was a coal fired stove. Another plum job for the fourth cook was to get up before everyone else and be sure that fire was ready to go, and keep it that way all though the day.

Keeping track here? That’s cramped work space, very hot (with no air conditioning) and you’re busy during meal times. When not serving meals, you’re likely to be getting ready by doing all of your prep work for the next one. That could even include baking fresh rolls, breads, pies, cakes and other pastries.

Oh, and did we forget to mention that the train was usually moving? That means moving in all directions. You might go up, down, back and forth; occasionally all at the same time. (I’ve experienced the same cooking on the train to have the pan go one way and the contents go exactly the opposite with the unexpected results.) You were also expected to wear a clean uniform while on duty. So, you can appreciate that this was difficult if sometimes not impossible.

Yet, the men who worked aboard the dining cars did the impossible. Dining aboard the train, you found the same level of service and quality of food equal to many a fine hotel and or restaurant. Trip after trip, miracles continued. For many people, a meal in the dining car was the highlight of their trip. And certain railroads developed specialties for which passengers might go out of their way to be sure to ride just to enjoy that meal.

Remember how Walt Disney and Ward Kimball rode the Santa Fe’s “Super Chief” from Los Angeles to Chicago in 1949 to attend the Railroad Fair? Ward told the tale of how he was looking forward to enjoying the beef stew (which the train was well known for under the Fred Harvey company’s guidance), only to have Walt order a couple of prime steaks instead. Various railroads offered regional favorites. The Denver & Rio Grande Western was known for the Rocky Mountain Rainbow Trout served in their dining cars. A well told tale relates how a passenger asked the steward how fresh the fish was, only to hear that the chef had reeled it in only moments before as the train rolled along the Colorado River.

A typical dining car meal check (For Government Employees Only) from the Sante Fe’s Fred Harvey Dining Car Service! Don’t forget to add dessert to that order!

As much as I can appreciate the effort that went into the final product served to the guest, I was fortunate to experience it a very limited number of times. Specifically, six memorable meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner each way) aboard the Rio Grande Zephyr’s “Silver Banquet” dining car on a round-trip between Salt Lake City and Denver in 1980. (The D&RGW didn’t join Amtrak until the mid-Eighties.)

Before Amtrak took over passenger train operations in 1970, my only train ride of any distance did not have a traditional dining car, but featured an Automatic Dining Car with vending machines, a radar range (a.k.a. microwave) oven and a single attendant to make change and assist as needed. A glimpse of the menu offered aboard that car offers a glimpse into the corporate mind.

An experiment in cost cutting gone awry, the Southern Pacific’s Automat dining cars were genuinely despised by passengers and crews alike.

So to wrap up today, I’ll share a few more recipes from that fine little eBay purchase. I’m certain to be enjoying it for some time to come!

“Combination Special Salad

  • ½ head of lettuce, quartered
  • 1 tomato, peeled and quartered
  • 1 hard-boiled egg, quartered
  • 1 tablespoon of shrimps, marinaded
  • 4 asparagus tips

Arrange lettuce in couple plate with tomatoes between. Fill shrimps in center, garnish with egg and place asparagus tips in star formation. Serve with thousand island dressing.”

“Fritters, Corn

To one cup of canned corn add one teaspoon of sugar, two eggs and a pinch of salt. Beat well, and add one cup of flour mixed with one teaspoonful of baking powder. Fry in shallow grease. When using new corn, crush same well, and add melted butter as shortening.”

“Wiener Schnitzel (Cutlet Vienna)

Slice cutlet from tender part of veal leg (not the fricandeau part), flatten lightly, slat, season with paprika and dredge with flour. Dip into beaten egg and bread with fresh bread crumbs (not cracker meal). Fry in butter slowly on both sides until golden brown. Arrange on platter and surround with tomato sauce. Garnish with a slice of lemon on which is places a fillet of anchovy, ring shaped, with capers in center.”

“Celery, Southern Pacific

Remove outside branches of celery stalks, trim tops, wash thoroughly and boil in consommé until soft. Let cool in consommé until same becomes firm. When serving, quarter stalks, and arrange with some of the jelly in a platter lined with crisp lettuce leaves.”

“Pineapple, Creole

Cook one cupful of rice in one quart of milk. Add half cupful of sugar and one cupful of chopped pineapple. Mix well. Mold in sauce dish, top with slice of pineapple, cover with raspberry syrup. Serve hot.”

That’s only a small sample of some of the magic those dining car wizards used to produce on a daily basis. I’ll be sharing more of these classic recipes, and a few more tales now and then in the coming months.

Oh dear, it’s time for lunch now. Why is it that there’s never a dining car around when you need one?

Don’t forget out first JHM “Night at the Movies” coming to Oakland on August 27. So far, a growing but select group, and always room for more to join in what promises to be an evening of merriment and misadventures…

And as always, thanks to you. Our loyal supporters keep us here doing what we do best. Churning out more infotainment for another week! A buck or two dropped in the JHM Amazon donation box really does generate results!

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  • 1 tablespoon of shrimps, marinaded

  • ½ head of lettuce, quartered

  • 1 hard-boiled egg, quartered

  • Cook one cupful of rice in one quart of milk. Add half cupful of sugar and one cupful of chopped pineapple. Mix well. Mold in sauce dish, top with slice of pineapple, cover with raspberry syrup. Serve hot.”

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