James Bernard "Jimmy" Watkins Jr.

Chef once remarked on a national TV show that the fabled B&O 'Endless Salad Bowl' had 'everything in it except bananas'

  • James Watkins
James Watkins (Baltimore Sun )
April 07, 2011|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun | Baltimore Sun reporter

James Bernard "Jimmy" Watkins Jr., a veteran Baltimore & Ohio Railroad dining car chef who during his 36-year career prepared thousands of meals for passengers, including Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, died March 30 of prostate cancer at his Pikesville home. He was 89.

Mr. Watkins was born in Baltimore and raised in Glen Burnie, and was a 1939 graduate of Glen Burnie High School.

He began his cooking career in the late 1930s, working as a lunch counter cook at Read's drugstore at Howard and Lexington streets, and soon began looking for a better job because "they didn't pay no money," he said in a 34-page typed transcript of a taped interview made for the Hays T. Watkins Research Library at the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore in 2002.

When he heard from neighbors that the B&O was hiring cooks, waiters and other dining car staff, he decided to apply for a job.

"I was interviewed and hired right on the spot because I had cooking experience from Read's," recalled Mr. Watkins.

He started out as a fourth cook, whose responsibilities, he said, were "washing dishes, pots, pans and scrubbing the floor, but I didn't do that long," and he soon was promoted to third and then second cook.

The professional world Mr. Watkins and his fellow workers inhabited was a cramped but efficient galley that was 16 feet long and 71/2 feet wide, where temperatures soared to over 100 degrees during the summer.

Oven, broiler and charcoal grill were fueled by coke, coal or pressed logs, and a steam table ran down one side of the car, while on the opposite side were an icebox, sink and vegetable storage lockers.

Other spaces held spices, ice, ingredients and utensils, along with storage for 700 plates, cups, saucers, miscellaneous pieces of china and crockery, 300 pieces of glassware and 600 pieces of silverware.

His railroad career was interrupted during World War II when he joined the Navy and was a chief chef and mess hall manager in the Pacific.

After the war, he resumed his career in 1946 with the B&O without loss of seniority. He was promoted to chef and worked on some of the road's most famous trains, including The Capitol Limited, National Limited, Ambassador and The Royal Blue.

"I was eventually promoted to chef and ran the whole system, and it was a wonderful experience for a young fella, you know, being able to travel all over the country and meeting people and enjoying working with the crews," he said.

The work schedule was rigorous. For instance, Mr. Watkins worked 16 days followed by 14 days off one month, and the next month worked 14 days with 16 off.

"It's not only hard [work], you have to love to do it. Not like it, love it, to work this hard. I just loved what I was doing," Mr. Watkins recalled in the interview.

Work included preparing all roasts, turkeys, pork, chickens and steaks and chops that were cooked to order. Sauces, gravies, crab imperial, crab cakes and anything else on the menu were prepared from scratch. Ingredients were not frozen or pre-cut.

"We boned our own shad so it would be boneless," he said, adding that all baking, including the preparation of hush puppies and spoon bread, was done from scratch.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Mr. Watkins was often assigned to POTUS — code name for President of the United States special trains — that conveyed President Roosevelt to his home in Hyde Park, N.Y., and President Truman to Canada on a goodwill tour and trips to his native Missouri.

"It was a wonderful experience," he said of being aboard the Truman Specials, adding that FDR required no special meal requirements, preferring to order off the B&O's standard dining car menu.

Mr. Watkins' culinary expertise was often requested by private car charterers and aboard B&O office cars that transported company officials, he said.

B&O officials sent Mr. Watkins to New York in 1954 to appear live on "The Home Show," a national TV show hosted by actress Arlene Francis, where he prepared hush puppies and demonstrated how the railroad's signature "Endless Salad Bowl" that contained "everything but bananas," he said, was assembled.

A Baltimore Sun TV critic noted that Mr. Watkins accomplished his culinary demonstration with "complete savoir faire."

Mr. Watkins recalled that he had been fortunate in his long career in never being in a railroad wreck because God "was watching over me, you know."

At the time of his retirement in 1976 from the Chessie System, successor to the B&O, Mr. Watkins was cooking in the railroad's executive offices in the B&O Building at Baltimore and North Charles streets.

Mr. Watkins' home might as well have been a B&O dining car.

"He did all the cooking at home, and I don't think my mother had ever been to a grocery store in her life," said his daughter, Thomasina "Thommie" W. Yearwood of Washington.

"I loved his crab cakes, they were fabulous; so was the fried fish and hush puppies. Everything he cooked was always so good. His lemon meringue pie and the special fruitcake he made at Christmas was just wonderful," Ms. Yearwood said.

He was an active communicant of St. James Episcopal Church in Lafayette Square for 54 years and a member of the Brotherhood of St. Andrew.

"Things came very easy," Mr. Watkins said reflecting on his career in the interview. "I would say I was very comfortable working for the railroad as a chef. It was a wonderful life."

Services will be at 11:30 a.m. Friday at his church, 1020 W. Lafayette Ave.

Also surviving are his wife of 63 years, the former Martha Diggs; two sons, Gregory Watkins of Baltimore and Gary Watkins of Pikesville; a sister, Ellen Woodlon of Morgantown, W.Va.; five grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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