Coach passengers at the breakfast table in the dining car of Amtrak's Southwest Chief train near Dodge City (Shutterstock/PICTOR PICTURE COMPANY)
More than 119,000 people have signed an online petition demanding that Amtrak cancel its plan to phase out dining on long-distance trains. But Richard Anderson, the head of the rail carrier, told Congress this week that he’s determined to phase out a grand American tradition that stretches back to the 1830s.
The first passenger trains didn’t serve food. Instead, they would make “food stops” in certain places along the line, typically clearings in the forest. There, the railroad would make available a range of utterly disgusting, foul vittles designed to blunt the appetite.
This included week-old coffee, eggs fried in rancid grease, and a dubious delicacy that travelers dubbed “railroad pie.” Its ingredients were the subject of considerable speculation, though its palatability – or lack thereof – was well established. One critic described this concoction as “a mongrel of the pie family which has been sold at railway stations with the deliberate purpose of securing the left-overs for roadway ballast.”
Passengers had other, equally unappealing options. So-called “news butchers” – street urchins who walked the aisles, peddling foodstuffs of unknown provenance – supplied much of what passed for sustenance on 19th century trains. Far better was the growing number of eateries run by the wives of railroad station managers.
But the idea of actually cooking meals on a train didn’t really take off until the 1860s, when a handful of companies began selling coffee and soup to passengers while the train was underway. Then, in 1868, George Pullman, the designer of famed sleeping cars, unveiled a new dining car. It was called “Delmonico,” after New York’s famed restaurant.
The name notwithstanding, the new dining car was a relatively modest affair, with an eight-by-eight-foot kitchen at the center of the car, and two modest dining rooms at either end. Still, the car catered largely to first-class customers; indeed, for the average farmer or laborer, the idea of dining in a restaurant, served by waiters, was an altogether alien experience.
Over the course of the 1870s and 1880s, most of the major passenger lines commissioned ever-more elaborate dining cars. A typical model operated by the Chicago and North Western railroad was fitted with plate-glass mirror to make the room feel bigger and plenty of windows for sightseeing. Maroon-colored leather seats complemented the maple, cherry, mahogany, and walnut woodwork. Gas chandeliers, paintings, and gilt trim rounded out the car, which also contained a state-of-the-art kitchen, wine and linen closets, and other necessities.
The meals served on these first-generation cars boggle the imagination. In 1883, one railroad kicked off a typical dinner with oysters on the half-shell, followed by Terrapin Soup, Kennebec Salmon with Green Peas, and, for the Francophile, Potatoes a la Parisienne. Not bad, right?
But that was just the first course. Next came leg of lamb (with caper sauce) or boiled capon (cream sauce), followed by a choice of turkey, beef ribs, roast beef, or “Tame Goose stuffed with apples” (wild geese can be so stringy, as any connoisseur knew at the time). And then? Sweetbreads with mushrooms and a “Salmi of Quail with Truffles,” an insanely complicated dish that took several hours to prepare.
Then it was on to roast partridge, chicken salad, smoked buffalo tongue, a jellied pâte of snipe, all served with a choice of ten vegetables. And if that was insufficient, diners could enjoy steamed puddings, cakes, confections, “Florida oranges,” coffee, cheeses, and more. Total cost? One dollar.
As the price tag would suggest, dining-car service was a bit of a loss leader for the railroads. The first-class passengers expected it, and so the railroads delivered, even if as they gritted their teeth at maintaining the staff, to say nothing of the fully-stocked larders required to make this work.
What’s remarkable, though, is that most railroad historians believe that the food actually got better in the early twentieth century, with dining cars reaching the very pinnacle of service and culinary achievement in the 1920s. Railroads had their own custom china, silverware and linens, and some opened special schools to train stewards, waiters, and cooks.
The food was as good as anything you could get in a high-end restaurant. Moreover, it was more varied. A pescatarian passenger traveling from New England to the Northwest would enjoy, in several days’ succession, clam chowder, whitefish from Lake Erie and trout from Lake Michigan, followed by pike and bass fished from the lakes of Minnesota. Then more trout – this time from the Rocky Mountains, culminating with Royal Chinook Salmon and deep-sea crab as the train made its final stops.
Another development was also critical to the dining cars’ popularity: The development of multiple menus that served different classes of passengers. At the same time, railroads began building a range of buffet cars, snack cars, bar cars, and others that served simpler food and drink. The Great Depression only accelerated the democratization of railroad dining.
Thanks to new labor laws passed during the New Deal, the 1930s also gave the workers who toiled on these railroads far greater leverage over their employers. They bargained for better wages, but this happened to coincide with the rise of other forms of transportation. The railways were losing business.
By 1950, the situation was becoming untenable. For every dollar the railroads made, they paid out 40 cents in dining-car expenses. By 1961, passenger traffic had dropped 75 percent from its peak, but the number of dining-car workers remained nearly the same. The railroads, facing a perilous future, began cutting dining cars altogether.
By the time Amtrak took over the nation’s passenger car service, there was little left of the original dining-car culture. Amtrak gamely tried to revive some of it, but it quickly found that running a restaurant on wheels was a serious drain on resources. Amtrak has gone back and forth over the years, trying to make the dining car work. But it’s thrown in the towel.
Sadly, we’ve finally come to the end of the line.
Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to Bloomberg Opinion.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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