Friday, September 09, 2011

Notes From The Dining Car


One thing about age is it brings along experience and memories. Memory is an amusing thing. It seems to be all about the good and enjoyable. Those darker parts have been sent to the trash bin awaiting deletion.

Over the years I have worked in many venues, some challenging, mostly fun. I want to use the word funnest which the word processor underlines in red. But funnest it's going to be to describe cooking on a train.

The adventure starts out with a "consist" (train term meaning a string of cars) of three cars. A baggage car (prep kitchen) and two "heavies" as they are called. A historic private car called the Robert Perry was used by Pres. Roosevelt 34 times in 1934, 35 and 36. Others using the Robert Perry in the 1930s included opera star Lily Pons and screen stars Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald. In 1973 Perry was used in filming Executive Action with Burt Lancaster & Robert Ryan. In October 1976, Perry was used in filming MacArthur with Gregory Peck & Dan O'Herlihy. The car has a galley with oil-burning stove/oven; stewards' quarters with shower/toilet and two berths; a conference/ dining room; four (originally five) bedrooms; a shower; a solarium- lounge; and open observation platform. It can seat about thirty for dinner. The third car was the ATSF 1509. This car was used on the Kansas City-Tulsa Oil Flyer, Chicago-Los Angeles Grand Canyon and Fast Mail & Express, and the Phoenix-Los Angeles "Bankers' Special", and in the film A Time of Destiny. It has four 4-seat and four 2-seat tables in its dining room. The cocktail section contains a wardrobe, linen locker, crew lavatory, small stainless-steel bar, two 4-seat tables, and two settee's with smoking stands. The lounge area has eleven upholstered armchairs and a writing desk with chair. The kitchen has a wood & coal-burning stove, grill, ovens, two sinks with steam jets, a refrigerator with roof-top ice hatch, and a side service door. A steam table with coffee urn and carving table separates the kitchen from the serving pantry. Thirty-seven can be seated for dinner.

Where's my damn train.

Realize that train people think in "train do" or more like do-do. There are many chiefs and each one has an opinion on how things are to be done. You would think with a train consist of three cars and an engine it would be simple to assemble. To give credit they did work in a yard without a turntable. Getting all the cars in order and pointing in the right direction was an amusing site to watch. It became a crusade to have the dining cars with its engine on the proper siding at the proper time. After dealing with this for years I finally approached the problem with resolve if not a cool head. With a truckload of food trying to find our train in a maze of tracks and assorted cars and engines became an adventure every departure day. We would park and send out scouting parties to pinpoint our train only to have our truck race there and find the train was no longer. Moved and lost again. Have you chefs ever lost your kitchen three times in one afternoon?

Getting it all on board in one piece.

Once we corralled our cars we off loaded the prepped food. Inventoried it twice. Sent the truck rushing back for what we forgot. Dumped blocked ice down the chutes to chill the iceboxes. Lit off our wood fired range, taking about an hour to get up heat for oven, hotel top and steam. Two chefs would start the fix menu preparation including canapés, salad, entrée, and dessert. Six stewards would start setting up the dining rooms. Usually just about the time the bud vases and glasses were set they would decide the consist had to be moved a few feet. There was one engineer that had a gentle hand on the throttle. When he was on board everything was smooth and calm. Two other engineers were nightmares in training.

The food prepared was historically correct dining fare from past train service. We used original chef manuals from each passenger rail service. Each run featured a menu and food from a particular passenger line. The actual menus were reproductions of those originally used. For example:

Garden Salad Bowl With Southern Pacific Dressing

4 Ea Medium Tomatoes
2 Ea Medium Lettuce Heads
1 Ea Cucumber; Scored And Sliced
4 Ea Radish; Sliced
1/2 Ea Green Pepper; Cut In Strips
1 Tsp Sugar
1 Pinch Salt
1/3 C Southern Pacific Dressing

Peel tomatoes and cut into quarters and set aside to cool. Break lettuce
into bite size pieces. Pare the cucumber, score all sides lengthwise with
tines of a fork, and slice thin. In salad bowl arrange bed of lettuce. Toss
lettuce, cucumbers, radishes and green peppers, sugar, salt and dressing
put in salad bowl and top with tomato wedges.

Contributor: Southern Pacific
Yield: 6 servings
Preparation Time: 0:30

Southern Pacific Dressing

1 Tbsp English mustard
1 Tbsp Salt
1/4 C Vinegar White
1/2 C Currant Jelly
2 C Mayonnaises
1 C Catsup

Stir mustard and salt into vinegar until dissolved. Add jelly until smooth.
Add mayonnaise and catsup and mix thoroughly.
Contributor: Southern Pacific
Yield: 6 servings
Preparation Time: 0:15

Explaining the 1930 dishes to our guests was a chore my youngest son did well. One dish was always fun to see people react to. It was Southern Pacific Baked Potato Surprise. A filet baked and served in a super large potato.

Learning to cook commercially on a wood stove and an oil-fired range was quite an experience. Each oven had its own hot and cool spots that you either learned or burned. The nightmare of being halfway to Mexico and burning, spilling or otherwise ruining a segment of the dinner was always our fear. We had little if any backup. In ten years we never lost a chop or shrimp. We lost a steward though. We stopped for a passenger smoke and photo op and he didn't make it back on board. We picked up one scared kid on the way back. After that you couldn't coax him off at a stop.

On board weddings was always a challenge. Tiered cakes just did not do well with our engineers. Trying to get brides and their moms to forsake big elaborate cakes was an ordeal I always assigned to one of my sons and hid out. There was one mother who in mid ride decided she wanted the cake moved from the dining room to the lounge. Her husband and one groom wore it well. And yes of course she wanted a refund for the cost of the cake. I think she said something like "the train was moving to much sideways".

Probably the hardest and most sensitive was the plating. Space to lie out plates was not available. The Perry kitchen was a one-man space and with me in it the other was also. To serve seventy covers all at once going in two different directions was a ballet dance done by a hippo. I never threw a plate at a steward and with the dining rooms a few feet away couldn't even cuss. But I sure cultivated some mean looking stares.

When it was all over we let our collective breath out, smiled and lied to our guests about how easy it was and relished the compliments.


I did graduate into a new consist with a full kitchen car that had gas and eclectic and we increased our capacity up to 150 guests. The new kitchen car had a compliment of two chefs a cook and helper. Unfortunately while it was coupled to a tank car it was bumped by a yard engine and rolled down the tracks to it's doom and my retirement.