When Meal On A Train Was A Memorable Experience


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December 06, 2009|By Frederick Rasmussen | Frederick Rasmussen , Fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

It's been nearly 40 years since the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad served its last meal aboard one of its acclaimed dining cars. The cars were forced into extinction by the 1971 birth of Amtrak.

And with the coming of Amtrak, the great epoch of railroad cuisine prepared by an accomplished chef, carefully served by attentive waiters on real china, with tables set with glimmering silver, linen table cloths, a vase of fresh flowers and fluffy, thick, white napkins aboard dining cars, came to a close.

While it is true that Amtrak does provide dining cars on long-distance runs, so the experience isn't entirely lost, the meal selection is a faint glimmer of what used to roll out of a dining-car galley.

If one is old enough to recall the pleasures of that bygone era, then what passes today for eating in the diner pales by comparison.

Passengers now must pretty much trust their stomachs to the hands of snack bar attendants whose culinary expertise is limited to knowing how long to warm a prepackaged hamburger or cheese sandwich in a microwave oven, pour a pre-mixed cocktail or pop the top of a cold can of beer.

However, authors Thomas J. Greco and Karl D. Spence, in their recently published book from the Johns Hopkins University Press, "Dining on the B&O: Recipes and Sidelights From A Bygone Age," recall what was once American railroading's premier dining car operation, where no expense was spared in pursuit of the finest ingredients, and where food was placed in trusted hands.

The flamboyant editor, author and rail traveler Lucius Beebe, in a 1946 article in Gourmet Magazine, praised the B&O's dining-car fare as the "best in the country," while, in another article, bemoaning the poor quality of food generally served aboard the nation's dining cars.

In particular, Beebe knocked the Pennsylvania Railroad, which "indulged their virulent hatred of the demon passenger to a degree of insolence and starvation combined," he wrote.

I remember Howard E. Simpson, the last president of the B&O, telling me years ago, that the his railroad never made money on its dining-car operation but wrote it off as a tremendous promotional device for the line.

Greco and Spence both rode the B&O and enjoyed many of the dishes served aboard its dining cars.

There have been earlier books devoted to the subject by William Hollister and Jim Porterfield, but no railroad - except the New York, New Haven & Hartford, perhaps, whose dining-car service was chronicled several years ago by Marc J., Frattasio - has been the object of such intense culinary veneration as the B&O.

And there is a lot to rhapsodize about.

Greco and Spence begin their gastronomic rail journey to yesteryear with an evocative essay by William F. Howes Jr., who was the B&O's last director of passenger services, and an acknowledged railroad historian and noted collector of dining-car china and silver.

Howes recounts in detail an eastbound trip in the fall of 1957 from Chicago's now-demolished Grand Central Station overnight aboard the B&O's famed Capitol Limited to Washington's Union Station.

Dinner and breakfast in the dining car were central components of that trip, as was bunking down in a cozy Pullman roomette for the night as the world rolled by in a blaze of light and sounds of mournful locomotive whistles blowing for rural crossings.

"You pause to admire the main dining room's decor and furnishings in multiple shades of rose, gold, and pale green. The tables are set with pressed linens and silver-plated flatware," wrote Howes. "You read recently that the B&O serves about a million meals a year and look forward to one later on in this attractive setting."

After a meal of Hawaiian fruit cup, grenadine, crab cakes, chopped spinach with eggs, creamed potatoes, apple pie and hot tea, the waiter returns with a "heaping bowl of the B&O's famous 'Help Yourself' salad topped with Roquefort cheese" for a grand finale, Howes wrote.

His dinner had been served on the road's famed china that featured historic scenes from along its route as well as its locomotives.

The meal concluded with the arrival of a silver finger bowl containing lemon water.

"The food was delicious and the service top-notch," recalled Howes.

The B&O entered the dining business in 1842, when the railroad outfitted a car with a board or table, with benches on either side. Passengers dined on food that had been prepared by a caterer and placed on board. It wasn't until 1881 that the railroad wheeled out its first dining car.

The dining car as a rolling restaurant outfitted with rare woods, stained-glass windows and hissing gaslights reached its apogee in the 19th century.

The modern or steel-era dining car eventually evolved into a model of efficiency, according to the authors, where meals were prepared from scratch in a galley that was 16 feet long and 7 1/2 feet wide.

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