B&O museum brings back the elegance of a dining car

JACQUES KELLY

June 21, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

People invariably remember two things about a meal on a old Baltimore and Ohio Railroad dining car: the quality of the food and the plates that held it.

This happy marriage of railroading and cuisine disappeared more than 20 years ago, when the B&O's long-distance service was enveloped by AMTRAK and its airline-like attitude toward passengers.

But last week, Baltimore's B&O Railroad Museum brought back the diner, brought back the fabled blue china and the food. About 30 persons assembled for a dinner of beef consume, crab cakes, baked potato, green beans and strawberry rhubarb pie, all served on an old rail siding off Pratt and Poppleton streets. The only thing missing was passing scenery, striking bells, wailing whistles and the rocking, rhythmic clacking of rail travel.

The china was proper B&O crockery, those heavy plates decorated with Staffordshire-like blue designs of Maryland scenes and the states served by the mighty rail carrier. There were dinner plates and vegetable dishes, bread-and-butter plates and dessert plates with blue locomotives around the edges.

The B&O china looked like a piece of corporate design created by your Aunt Margaret. But people loved it. It's been collected for years and, in various editions and reproductions, has been a financial mainstay of the B&O Museum's gift shop ever since the railroad's last baked apple was served.

The diners paid $100 a head (a hefty portion of that tab went as a museum contribution) for the chance to sit in an Eisenhower-era dining car and be served in the style reminiscent of the Royal Blue or the Capitol Limited. Classic Caterers did very well by the food (much of it heated in a gas stove with propane tank set up in the museum's railroad yard), while the menu was selected from author James Porterfield's new book, "Dining By Rail." The crab cakes were a B&O specialty; the baked potato was derived from the Northern Pacific Railroad; the string beans were Western Pacific; the pie was from a New Haven treat. There were no leftovers. The museum plans to repeat the dinners on a regular basis, although no date for the next has been determined.

"The B&O lost money on its dining cars but they were important for its competitive edge. The food was renowned among rail travelers. The dining cars were inviting and well staffed. The railroad said its cars had the finest hotel service in the south," said museum curator John Hankey.

The car used for the occasion was a 1920s dining car stripped and rebuilt by B&O labor in 1954. That reconstruction took place in an old brick industrial building less than 100 feet from the siding where it now stands in the museum's collection.

"Dining cars were the heaviest on the railroad, all weighed down with air conditioning equipment, water, stoves, charcoal, linen and silver. They were also costly. The railroad could buy two [passenger] coaches for every dining car," said Hankey.

In the 1920s, the B&O promoted its dining cars by naming them after historically prominent American women. As passengers waited in a station, the big olive green restaurant-on-wheels coasted into a station. The names Martha Washington, Dolly Madison, Molly Pitcher and Mary Pickersgill were in gold-letters on the diner's sides. There was usually a waiter looking out at the diner's vestibule end. You could smell the pork chops, baked fish or gingerbread pudding.

Dining car fare was not cheap. A full dinner might cost $2 in the era when many breadwinners were making $50 a week. Budget travelers ate elsewhere or in canteen coaches. In the days of strict racial segregation, dining car waiters were all male African-Americans, as were the cooks. But being on the B&O dining car staff was a coveted position.

The older coaches had Hepplewhite reproduction chairs, brass side lights, fancy Colonial windows, starched white napkins and bottles of Deer Park mineral water from Garrett County.

A typical mid-1940s menu on the Royal Blue dining car (Washington to Jersey City with a bus connection to Manhattan) consisted of iced celery, watermelon rind or essence of fowl as appetizers; main courses: omelet with garden peas, panned oysters on toast with bacon, broiled Chesapeake Bay fish; roast Maryland chicken with dressing; broiled lamb chops or small sirloin steak.

Other choices were whipped potatoes, a fresh vegetable, braised sweet potatoes, lettuce and tomato salad with B&O dressing (probably the dining car chef's own recipe) and desserts of ice cream, Liederkranz cheese or mince meat roll with brandy sauce.

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