Chefs comparable to those in the best restaurants turned out delicious meals that were served on fine china set on crisp, white linen tablecloths. The ambiance was of a five-star restaurant with impeccable service delivered even as the car swayed and bumped along the line.
The cuisine began to decline by the 1960s, when air travel and superhighways began to eat into the railroad business (pun intended), but you still could get a pretty good meal.
At least it would seem so from a faded "General Notice" from the Dining Car & Commissary Department of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Co. I found stuck in an old cookbook.
It's dated Aug. 8, 1961, and is intended for "all stewards, waiters-in-charge, cooks and waiters." It gives recipes for dishes to be served in the company's dining cars.
By the early 1960s, the B&O and every passenger railroad was trying everything possible to keep their own passengers and steal some from other lines, and one of the ways was to offer stellar dining service.
Quite often, the dining car became a marketing tool, promoting rhe company's cuisine over that of the rival lines.
Topping the list of recipes on my list, not unexpectedly for the Baltimore & Ohio, is Deluxe Maryland Crab Cakes.
The instructions are, "To each pound of crabmeat use one slice of white bread, soaked in water and squeezed dry. Break bread into small pieces and add one level teaspoon pepper, 3/4 teaspoon salt, one tablespoon dry mustard, one tablespoon mayonnaise and one well beaten egg. Mix and form into seven cakes. Do not break up the large lumps of meat. Serve two cakes to the order."
The Boiled Brisket of Beef with Horseradish Sauce calls for fresh brisket to be put into boiling salt water with a peeled onion, carrots and outside stalks of celery. It is to be cooked until tender, skimming as needed.
The sauce required a roux made with a half cup of flour and a kitchen spoonful of butter. It was cooked for 10 minutes, and then a quart of broth strained from the brisket was added to it, along with a kitchen spoonful of horseradish and a spot of vinegar.
In its heyday, the famed Sunset Limited probably outshone the B&O.
It was known for a cuisine inspired by Louisiana cooking, featuring favorites like gumbo, specially roasted coffees, and giant Louisiana shrimp or fish from the Gulf.
A sumptuous Southern Pacific salad was such a point of pride that it was pictured on the line's matchbook covers.
In the kitchen car you'd find not only an array of chefs, but bakers and pie makers and other specialists. The fresh-baked pies were often served with a topping of ice cream also made fresh on the train.
One of the SP recipes I've found was for an avocado cocktail with French sauce.
First you make the French dressing by combining a teaspoon of paprika, a tablespoon of English mustard, a teaspoon of salt and a teaspoon of white pepper in a mixing bowl. Moisten this mixture with a few drops of vinegar and then slowly pour two cups of olive oil into the mixture, stirring constantly.
When the mixture begins to thicken, trickle in a half cup of white vinegar and two tablespoons of cold water. Mix all of this thoroughly and chill the dressing until you are ready to use it.
While the dressing is chilling, cut a medium avocado in half, remove the pit, and scoop the avocado from the shell with a melon baller. Heap the avocado balls loosely into four cocktail glasses. Mix together a tablespoon of ketchup, two tablespoons of French dressing, and the juice of half a lemon. Cover each portion with a spoonful of the dressing and serve chilled.
Think about these recipes and weep next time you search an Amtrak vending machine for something to eat.
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at email@example.com or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.