Ah, the romance of trains.
Is there anything more elegantly delicious than a freshly cooked meal served in a dining car?
THE DINING CAR OF THE SOUTHERN CRESCENT
by John Campbell
The Southern Crescent
snakes its way through
the rolling fog shrouded
a young man on spring break,
returning home from
college, crosses the creaky
passageway that leads from
Pullmans to the dining car.
Breakfast smells give rise to
an ambitious order of fresh coffee,
country ham with red eye gravy,
grits, scrambled eggs and
biscuits with blackberry jam.
The waiter, agile and accomplished,
dressed in a white starched apron,
steadies himself against the swaying
motion of the train; with serving tray
in hand and balanced, he places the
piping hot breakfast on a table decked
with a linen table cloth, pewter
creamers, thick silverware, coffee
cups and saucers and plates, etched with
a crescent moon insignia; a small
bundle of daffodils sit in a crystal
vase near the window.
The young man with the vittles before him,
relishes a feeling of adult composure
and delight. “How could life be this good?”
A breakfast fit for a king, waiters
eager to please, railway views of
rural Carolina: tenant shanties,
grazing black angus, abandoned junkyards,
brownstone depots and sleepy towns.
He, still unfamiliar with the niceties
of the wealthy elite, or even the acquired
dignities of his college
professors, avows, while pouring
coffee from a silver carafe into
a Syracuse China cup, that the
dining car of the Southern Crescent
is a place of utmost refinement.
I’ve been trying to remember when I first fell in love with trains. Maybe the Boxcar Children or “Some Like It Hot” had something to do with it, or being charmed by A Hole is to Dig, when I first learned “A hat is to wear on a train.” Whether you’re talking about Harry Potter, Paddington Bear, Anne of Green Gables, or Anna Karenina, the train station is the place to be. After all, a platform encounter can be life changing.
Whatever the case, I’m pretty sure the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” sealed the deal for me. Once I saw that movie, I wanted to move to England and hop aboard a passenger train. Luckily, I was able to do both (and I even managed to marry an engineer there who was designing a railroad at the time).
Though I have fond memories of British Rail, Japan’s Shinkansen, and Amtrak to NYC (a rare occasion where I actually wore a hat), I’ve never eaten in a dining car. There’s just something about the enchanting ambiance — white linen tablecloths, special china bearing railroad insignia, pretty glassware and flatware, as well as the interesting, ever-changing scenery like a movie playing right outside your window — that continues to tickle my fancy.
Yes, I’ll have another cup of Darjeeling! Who’s that handsome stranger at the next table? Please tell the chef his biscuits are divine. Oh, the luxury! Pamper me, please. Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, Belmond Royal Scotsman, or Maharajas Express, here I come (only the best will do)!
The Southern Crescent mentioned in Campbell’s poem was an overnight long-distance passenger train with service between Washington, D.C., and New Orleans. It was the last privately-run long haul passenger train in the United States (due to loss of revenue, operation was turned over to Amtrak in 1979).
Today the Crescent makes daily runs (1377 miles) between Penn Station NYC and Union Passenger Terminal in New Orleans, passing through the District of Columbia and 12 states, more than any other Amtrak route.
When George M. Pullman introduced the first full dining car in 1868, the emphasis was on fresh ingredients and providing a first-class experience for the long distance traveler (multi-course soup-to-nuts meals with delicacies such as game birds, lobster, roast leg of lamb, suckling pig, braised duck, antelope steak, and pan-fried trout prepared by specially trained chefs). There was no shortage of fine wines, cheeses, and specialty desserts — all designed to lure customers to the luxury and leisure of train travel.
Many railroads also offered signature or regional dishes that evoked the areas through which its trains passed, such as Shoo-Fly Pie (Pennsylvania RR), Windy City Pork Ribs (Cardinal and Capital Limited), and Georgia Peaches (Southern Railway).
Imagine how tricky it would be to work as a chef, steward, or waiter in the dining car. You would have to negotiate constant motion and be prepared for sudden stops, accelerations, or sharp turns. And what about the compact prep areas and limited storage space?
Unlike today’s boring airplane food, which is pre-made and then heated inflight, the meals served during the golden age of train travel (40’s and 50’s) were made to order and served by attentive waiters. No puny tray tables with someone in front of you leaning back into your lasagna (can you tell I hate to fly?). I’d share a table with Cary Grant or Jack Lemmon in the dining car any day.
The young man in the poem was on his way home for spring break. I can imagine feeling the same way, bathed in “utmost refinement,” asking myself, “How could life be this good?” And didn’t his hearty breakfast of country ham with red eye gravy, scrambled eggs, grits and homemade biscuit sound amazing? Mmmm, you can just about smell that freshly brewed coffee!
Who could ask for anything more?
Enjoy this short dining car scene from “A Hard Day’s Night.” A real train was chartered just for the film; it traveled daily between Cornwall and Paddington Station (I always dreamed about meeting Paul on a train):
And if you’re in the mood for a steamy dining car seduction, check out Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in “North by Northwest.” Talk about smoldering:
Do you have any memorable dining car experiences to share?
💚 BOOK OF KELLS GIVEAWAY WINNER! 🍀
After polishing off three pints of Guinness and reciting four glosas from Barbara’s book, a slightly tipsy M. Random Integer O’ Generator (nattily dressed in a green velvet waistcoat) picked the following name from his Donegal cap:
*drum roll, please*
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The beautiful and talented Irene Latham is hosting the Roundup at Live Your Poem. Have you been following her wonderful Artspeak: Happy series (love it!)? Click through to check out the full menu of poetic goodness being served up in the blogosphere this week. All Aboard for a Happy Weekend!
This post is also being linked to Beth Fish Reads Weekend Cooking, where all are invited to share their food-related posts. Put on your best aprons and bibs, and come join the fun!
“To say that the Southern Crescent was iconic is to do injustice to the word. In its heyday before the arrival of the interstate highway system or of inexpensive flight, rail was the most civilized way to cover significant distances, and Southern Railway didn’t skimp. The Crescent was one of the great historical train experiences, akin to those 747s with the piano bars. The dining cars were first-class restaurants, and trains came equipped with club cars, domed observation cars and even library cars for awhile. It’s almost hard to imagine living in a world where people aren’t just meant to be moved from place to place as cheaply as possible, but for a brief shining moment, that was the case. The train was not just a means of transportation — it was a place to actually be.”
~ Fletcher Moore (“This Train is Bound for Glory, This Train . . . “/The Bitter Southerner)
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