Dining on the Rails

Exploring the romance of railroad days of yore and the reality of modern meals on the move.

By: Matt Smith

An Amtrak promotional shot of a Superliner dining car. The government-run railroad is modernizing its approach to onboard meals, with an emphasis on heat-and-eat dishes á la restaurants such as Houlihan’s, T.G.I. Friday’s and Bennigan’s.

   When asked what their dream job would be, many people muse about an occupation that would lavish them with fame, money and power. While I probably wouldn’t turn any of those down, my answer to that question has always been the same: "Baseball writer, big-city daily newspaper, 1920s to 1950s."
   As I travel back through time in my dream scenario, I picture it like this: It’s 1927, and I’m on a Chicago-bound train with the record-setting New York Yankees. I’m sporting a gray wool suit and fedora with a "PRESS" card stuck in the brim. Babe Ruth is holding court in the dining car, downing steaks and telling jokes with equal aplomb. I move to a far table and join "Yankee Clipper" Lou Gehrig, quietly minding his own business, or perhaps talk strategy with manager Miller Huggins, a feisty S.O.B., but also a well-educated gentleman (he earned a law degree from the University of Cincinnati).
   Actually, strike that. Take out the noise and the sweaty ballplayers, leaving me with a fresh-cooked meal, a decent glass of wine and a window seat in that well-appointed Pullman dining car. The steward taps me on the shoulder to offer another glass, but I’m lost in thought, watching the countryside roll by when I should be typing away at my story about the upcoming Yankees-White Sox tilt.
   Jumping ahead some 70 years, my day-to-day life bears little resemblance to that sepia-toned fantasy. I am a writer, although my beat is arts and entertainment, not America’s pastime. I do ride the rails frequently, yet it’s usually on no-frills NJ Transit and SEPTA commuter lines — or the occasional splurge on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor service. And I often have my dinner on the train, although it usually consists of whatever aging donut remains at the Dunkin’ Donuts counter, or that elusive mint at the bottom of my bag.
   I turned to Frank Reilly, unofficial historian of the late Central Railroad of New Jersey, for a less romanticized account of onboard meals in the early and mid-20th century. Mr. Reilly, a longtime employee of that line (which ceased operation in 1976), is author of the recently published The Central Railroad of New Jersey: Its History and Employees. He says the Jersey Central owned three dining cars, and co-owned 15 with the Reading Railroad, which partnered in its Jersey City-to-Philadelphia service.
   "It was like a very small restaurant, with a tiny kitchen, but it was amazing what they could whip up," he says. "They generally used charcoal-fired stoves, but later trains had electric stoves. There was a dining-car-regulations booklet, which the maitre d’ was responsible to carry out — how a table was to be set, how an order was to be placed — but they also had menus so that chefs would maintain a continuous standard."
   A 1938 menu for the Jersey Central’s "Blue Comet" dining car lists a wide selection of breakfast, lunch and dinner items, beginning with a piece of rye bread (10 cents) and topping out with the Broiled Single Lamb Chops ($1.25) and Broiled Small Sirloin Steak ($1.50). You could wash your meal down with a Gin Rickey or Tom Collins (both 35 cents), or splurge for "Bonded" Bourbon (50 cents). Cigars (10 and 15 cents) and cigarettes (15 cents) were also an after-dinner requirement in the days before smoking was barred from most trains. Dining cars usually sat about 50 people, notes Mr. Reilly, making it impossible to serve everyone on the train at once.
   "There were two or three seatings," he says. "Dinner would be at 5, 6:30 and 8 p.m. What they used to do in the old days was use a dinner-chime box. The waiter would walk through the train with a chime box, which had four or five metal things on them that made a pleasant tone, announcing ‘the dining car is now open for the first seating… ‘"
   Mr. Reilly, executive director of the Morris County Department of Transportation for the past three decades, often gives railroad-related presentations to youngsters, whom he says are often captivated by such a notion. "They are totally shocked you can eat on a train," he says. "They say, ‘Where can we have dinner on a train or breakfast on a train?’"
   Paul Humphreys, director of food and beverage for Amtrak, would probably be heartened to hear about these future rail diners. Mr. Humphreys is a 28-year veteran of the government-run passenger railroad, which took over for departed lines such as the Jersey Central in the 1970s and is always struggling to stay on track. He is responsible for planning all Amtrak menus, a task that requires attending trade conventions, meeting with food suppliers and doing some good old-fashioned cooking in Amtrak’s test kitchen in Wilmington, Del., which, unfortunately, does not yet reflect actual rail conditions.
   "We’re in the final stages of completing a test kitchen that replicates the onboard set-up, but it doesn’t sway (as a train does)," Mr. Humphreys says. "It’s right next door to the Acela Express simulator, so maybe we should combine the two."
   Amtrak currently rotates four different menu cycles on its long-distance trains, with a fifth on the way this year. At any one time, three cycles are in service, limiting repeats for frequent passengers. An ideal meal, says Mr. Humphreys, features individually wrapped ingredients, limited knife work and short preparation time.
   "Being Amtrak, there are always cost constraints," he says, "but we strive for the highest quality that we can, while also being reasonable and watching our waste, our ‘condemnage.’ We’re going the way of restaurants like Houlihan’s, T.G.I. Friday’s or Bennigan’s, in that a lot of what we’re doing is heating."
   Amtrak previously trained all its chefs at the Culinary Institute of America, but discontinued that program about a decade ago to focus on this more streamlined approach to food service. Still, you can find some tasty selections next time you ride the City of New Orleans or the Sunset Limited. "The thing that you might not expect to get," says Mr. Humphreys, "is a roasted lamb shank or perhaps a field greens salad with shrimp, scallops and lobster."
   That actually sounds quite good — and a significant upgrade over my usual Boston Kreme with Tic Tac sprinkles. Maybe someday I’ll end up sitting next to a ballplayer or two on an Amtrak Silver Service train from Florida. The team will be returning from Spring Training, heading north to start the season in Baltimore or Philadelphia. We can share a few laughs, a good meal and a good view — and muse about what it must have been like to hang out with those ’27 Yankees.
The Central Railroad of New Jersey: Its History and Employees by Frank Reilly can be ordered for $17.95 (soft cover) or $27.95 (hard cover) through Frank Reilly, 460 Elm St., Stirling, NJ 07980-1126, or e-mail: ftr4444@hotmail.com. For information about Amtrak, call (800) 872-7245 (USA-RAIL). On the Web: www.amtrak.com