I am not a railroad buff, but I do like good food. Last week, as I stood under the magnificent wooden dome of the B&O Roundhouse, I heard stories about the dishes once served on the Baltimore & Ohio railroad. My mouth watered.
I was among a crowd of about 200 who had gathered in the West Pratt Street roundhouse, officially known as The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum. Surrounded by glistening locomotives of a bygone era, we heard the authors of a new Johns Hopkins Press cookbook, "Dining on the B&O," family members of former B&O workers and local historians talk about the railroad's fabled cuisine.
Norma McCormack said that from the 1940s to 1960s when her father, William H. Bond, was first a steward and then superintendent of B&O dining, their family home on Catalpha Road in Northeast Baltimore became a test kitchen for railroad recipes.
"We were exposed to unusual foods like oxtail soup, jellied consomme, tomato aspics and frog legs," she said. "We ate all fresh fruits, vegetables and meats. We were taught the proper way to set a table, and coached on how to use impeccable manners when eating. In other words, we didn't just eat dinner, we dined," she said.
Most dishes, she said, were delectable. "The pork chops Normandie, on Page 80 [of the cookbook] are wonderful. My sisters and I still make it," McCormack said, "We think the crab cake recipe came from our mother, Violet, and ended up with the railroad."
But there were some dishes that she and her four sisters and brother found hard to swallow. "I hated the jellied consomme," McCormack said. But one of her sisters, Corinne Dixon, had a different recollection of the dish. "It wasn't so bad," Dixon said.
Thomas J. Greco, who along with Karl D. Spence wrote the cookbook, told how as a lad of 17 he was eating breakfast in the dining car of a B&O train traveling between Chicago and Baltimore when he mistakenly poured water on a stack of freshly made pancakes. The water, Greco explained, resembled the clear homemade pancake syrup that his father served at home in Omaha. The watered-down B&O pancakes didn't taste like much, Greco told me later. But he finished them anyway. "I didn't have enough money not to finish them," Greco said, adding that he eventually did find the container holding the pancake syrup. "The pancakes in the book," he said, "taste much better."
Fred Rasmussen, my colleague at The Baltimore Sun who has delved deeply into B&O history, told the crowd that the B&O did not make money on its dining car. Instead, he said, executives such as Howard E. Simpson, its last president, viewed the dining car as a marketing tool, promoting B&O cuisine over that of the rival Pennsylvania Railroad.
In many ways the B&O's emphasis on using fresh, local ingredients was a precursor to the modern movement stressing regional cooking, said chef John Shields, who is proprietor of Gertrude's restaurant and has written several books on Chesapeake cuisine. The term "locavore" wasn't around when the B&O trains were running, but its cooks were doing what Maryland locavores do today, he said. "They were cooking with the ingredients we grow right here or catch in the bay."
During the discussion, I thumbed through my copy of the cookbook, looking for recipes I might try.
I bumped into Nelson Carey, proprietor of the Grand Cru wine bar and shop in Belvedere Square and, I learned, a train buff. He said he and his wife, Christy, had made the book's Crab Imperial A La Grady and were quite pleased with it.
"It is like a rich crab casserole," Carey said.
That dish was tempting. But I figured I would wait until summer, when the local crabs arrive, to give it go.
Instead, I tried the recipe for buckwheat pancakes.
It called for buckwheat flour, which was a little hard to find. I located some at Whole Foods, and followed the minimal directions for the pancakes. Most of the instructions in the B&O manuals were written for professionals, Greco explained, for people who knew how to cook. I maneuvered my way through the buckwheat pancake recipe and, as requested, let the batter sit in the refrigerator overnight.
The next morning I rose early to cook the buckwheat pancakes for breakfast.
They were substantial, grainy and a bit heavier than the buttermilk pancakes I usually make. A taste of the past.
McCormack told me her mother used to make these pancakes for breakfast. Her father, however, was rarely present at the morning meal, she said.
By the time his children got to the breakfast table, he was already riding the rails.
B&O Buckwheat CakesMakes: 4 servings
teaspoon dry active yeast
tablespoon milk or water
tablespoon melted butter
cups cold water
cups buckwheat flour
teaspoon baking soda
tablespoon dark syrup (corn syrup or pancake syrup)