Route 66 #1

Route 66 #1
Route 66 Museum

Friday, January 24, 2014

Experiencing the Dining Car as It Use To Be

Train travel in the United States today is a far cry from what it once was. Only the long distance passenger trains have dining cars, and although the food is good and passengers are presented with a menu to choose from breakfast, lunch, and dinner much of the food comes semi-prepared. Dining on Amtrak is still a treat, and well worth experiencing both for its coolness factor and historical connection. Dining by rail though was once something completely different from what it is now. 

Back before the disintegration of the great passenger trains, dining by rail was something that helped distinguish one railway from another. Some railways even became famous for particular items on their dining car menus. Food on the dining car wasn't just sustenance to eat while the train sped along for many miles but instead it had become a gourmet dining experience that was on par with some of the larger cities finest gourmet eating establishments.

It wasn't always this way though dining cars really didn't come into fully functional service until around the time of World War I. Before then various food service  cars had been experimented with, railways tried everything from lunch cars to buffet cars to cafĂ© cars, all of which came with varying results. Most of these experiments started back around the time of the transcontinental railway and lasted all the way through the late 19th century into the very early 20th century. For the most part though if passengers wanted to eat along the way in this time period it required passengers to deboard trains at towns where the locomotive was forced to stop to take on coal and water. One can only imagine the inconvenience of having to do such a thing especially with having to worry about weather or the possibility of missing ones train and/or meal. 

It was during this same period time that the Santa Fe Railway entered into an agreement with the Fred Harvey Company. The Fred Harvey Company would provide eating establishments at larger whistle stops for the Santa Fe and the Santa Fe would agree to extend the time it took take on coal and water for their trains so that customers could have a leisurely meal at one of Harvey's restaurants. These restaurants became known as Harvey Houses, and I will take a deeper look at some Harvey Houses in postings to come. But Harvey Houses did something else they gave passengers a quality meal that was stress-free since Harvey Houses were located close to the Santa Fe tracks, the food was prepared in conjunction with trains that where stopped over, and managers would often wonder the Harvey House dining rooms notifying passengers of departing trains.

As a decades wore on locomotive's became more technically advanced which required them to stop less for coal and water. Eventually locomotives only had to make longer stops at larger cities meaning many of the whistle stops where they had previously allowed passengers to the leave the train in order get a meal where now totally bypassed as the train passed through them at high speed. For the railways it was time to finally have onboard dining facilities. By the 1910's advancements in onboard cooking, and refrigeration finally gave the railways the chance to produce effective dining cars. By the 1930s dining cars were at their peak, and so to was each railways need to brag that it had the best food. To say the least the battle between the railways for the best dining car would carry-on for 30 more years finally culminating in the 1960s with the Santa Fe Super Chiefs Turquoise Room, a special five-star dining room located in the Super Chiefs dining car and known for attracting the glitz and glamour of movie stars and other famous people of the era. 

By the 1970s the railways, specifically the passenger lines would go into to decline and many of them would disappear from memory. However memories of the wonderful food on their dining cars still remain and some have dedicated themselves to maintaining the memory of this food.

The books above James D Porterfield's Dining By Rail, and George H Foster and Peter C Weiglen's The Harvey House Cookbook are two great books commemorating the railway dining experience.

Dining By Rail functions as both a great history book and cookbook. Porterfield gets in-depth with the evolution of dining cars on various railways and then also manages to get in depth with how the various railways came about designing some other most famous menu options. Porterfield carefully brings together some brief histories and recipes from over 40 different railways. One of my favorite parts of this book is when Porterfield mentions the great French Toast Battle in which the Northern Pacific, Soo Line, Union Pacific, Santa Fe, and Pennsylvania railways try to compete for the best French Toast recipe, and you can find the French Toast recipe for each of these railways right here in this book.  There are hundreds of other excellent recipes from the railway dining cars listed in this book as well as a lot of great insight into life in the dining car. It's well worth the read in these recipes are definitely worth trying at home if you want to get a taste of how high-quality the food was I many of these dining cars.

The Harvey House Cookbook is another fantastic book to add to the overall experience of dining by rail. The book is dedicated to Harvey Houses, but is intermixed with recipes from various Santa Fe passenger trains. This is another fantastic book for gaining both historical insight into the operations of Harvey Houses and Santa Fe passenger trains and for just getting overall taste of what it must been like to actually have eaten at these places during their heyday. The book covers some of Fred Harvey's most notable resorts like the La Posada in Winslow, AZ, and the La Fonda in Santa Fe, NM, as well as some of it's other operations like Los Angeles, and Chicago Union Stations, and Chicago's Midway Airport. This book has a fantastic layout in which the historical text is in between the recipe sections which are themselves laid out by meal segments. All though this book isn't as in depth with Harvey House history as some other books it is a fantastic and should I say hands on or taste buds on introduction to Harvey House's which is extremely unique for any book on this subject. The book also allows us to see how dining cars where developed by giving us a peek into the period in which rail travel dining transferred from Harvey Houses to actual dining cars since some recipes in this book come from the California Limited, Santa Fe's precursor to the Chief and Super Chief, and the first of their trains to present onboard dining in a first class manor.

I must own 2 dozen books on the Santa Fe, but of all of them these two are the only ones that give me a real feel for what it must have been like to have been there, and put this piece of history in such human terms through a connection to food.

No comments:

Post a Comment