all aboard for the dining car!

Early Pullman dining car (late 19th century)

 

Ah, the romance of trains.

Is there anything more elegantly delicious than a freshly cooked meal served in a dining car?

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photo of Southern Railways diner by Bill Schafer (1973)

 

THE DINING CAR OF THE SOUTHERN CRESCENT
by John Campbell

The Southern Crescent
snakes its way through
the rolling fog shrouded
piedmont landscape;
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.

~ from January Snow and Other Poems (Williams & Company, 2008)

 

Dining Car 3158 built by Pullman for Southern Railway in 1924. Original design featured open windows, clerestory roof, and ornate 1920’s fixtures (via TVRR).

 

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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.

 

George Harrison met his first wife Patti Boyd on the set of “A Hard Day’s Night”

 

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.

 

Passengers in first class dining car, England (1905)

 

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)!

 

Belmond Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

 

 

You will be assigned a private butler aboard the Maharajas Express luxury train.

 

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).

 

Southern Crescent Dinner Menu (1973)

 

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.

 

Crescent dining car today (photo by Tony Cenicola/NYT)

 

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.

 

Great Northern RR Dinner Menu (1914)

 

Great Northern RR Ala Carte Menu

 

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.

 

Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright aboard the Brighton Belle

 

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!

 

Southern Breakfast via WS

 

Who could ask for anything more?

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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):

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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:

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Do you have any memorable dining car experiences to share?

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πŸ’š BOOK OF KELLS GIVEAWAY WINNER! πŸ€

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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*jiggety jig*

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*jig*

*jig*

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BUFFY SILVERMAN!!

πŸŽ‰ Congratulations, Buffy!! 🎈

πŸ‘ πŸ‘ πŸ‘ πŸ‘ πŸ‘

 

Thanks, everyone, for entering the giveaway!

↓

↓

🌺 Um, did you know there’s also a Surprise Giveaway over here β†’ (clickety click)?Β  πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚

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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!

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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!

 

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“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)


Copyright Β© 2019 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

60 thoughts on “all aboard for the dining car!

  1. I loved the Boxcar books, too! The train photos you shared are beautiful. You don’t see (at least where we live) that kind of opulence on a train anymore. If I were lucky enough to ride in a dining car like that, I’m sure I would feel just as the character of the poem feels. And your breakfast photos are making me hungry πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So true — there’s nothing like those old trains — so beautifully fitted. Amtrak just doesn’t cut it, and very few can afford to ride one of those luxury trains.

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  2. Outstanding post, Jama. I’ve never eaten in a dining car either. I did take the West Highland line up the West Coast of Scotland. The windows opened, and the sea air was nearly as fabulous as the views. I’ve always wanted to take the train across Canada. Wouldn’t that be gorgeous? I love that your poem had daffodils, same as mine. πŸ™‚ Although your also had breakfast, and now I’m hungry…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree — a trip on the Canadian Pacific RR would be wonderful. I also rode a train between Scotland and London with my mom once. It took about 5-6 hours. They had a concession bar, but no dining car. Just not the same.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes, I will have another cup of Darjeeling, too! Love these old photos so much. I have limited train car experience… Amtrack, back in the 80, between Birmingham and New Orleans. I don’t remember dining. The other related experience is staying at the Chattanooga Choo Choo hotel in Chattanooga, TN… they’ve made rooms out of old train cars. Still, no dining… I”m gonna have to look for a dining car experience now! Thank you, Jama, for this fascinating post… and for all you give each and every post. xo

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel sounds so cool, Irene! That made me remember the Victoria Station restaurants — can’t remember whether they used real old train cars or built replicas. Of course, not the same as eating in a real dining car. I think you need to take a poetry writing train ride sometime — think of the wonderful inspiration along the way, without having to worry about driving, etc.

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    1. It’s amazing they were able to cook such elaborate dishes aboard a train. Just finding adequate storage for all the fresh ingredients required would be challenging. Luckily there are many train buffs out there, who collect and share vintage dining car menus. I enjoyed perusing several and learning.

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  4. So many wonders here from the past, Jama.Wow, that elegance on the menu, for a dollar! My mother told me of her journey on a ‘packed’ train from Missouri to California to meet my father, during WWII. I imagine she didn’t have such a dining experience. My father-in-law was a UP engineer, so all their family rode the train many times across the country. I have eaten in a dining car once, on a long train trip to DC with my Girl Scout troop. It was so exciting. We had dinner and breakfast, spent the night traveling. But I don’t remember much about the meal except we did sit at tables together. I love the poem. In early college, there is such a feeling of adventure, being oneself, seeing the world, which is shown in this young man. Thanks for putting together a marvelous post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing the wonderful memories, Linda!! I can just imagine the packed train your mom had to travel on back then. And what a great experience to travel by train with your Girl Scouts. What a fun adventure that must have been! And two meals in the dining car. πŸ™‚ You’re right about being able to feel the college student’s sense of independence, his excitement at the novelty and adventure of it all — when you’re that age, anything and everything seems possible — the road ahead with so many possibilities.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I think watching old movies was a big part of creating that fantasy. Interesting things happened on trains — people were confined there for a specific stretch of time, and they couldn’t just get off whenever they pleased.

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  5. This post brought back so many memories, Jama! When I was a child in Europe, we used to travel by train often, and ate in the dining car, and listen to the “clackety-clack” of the wheels at night under our heads. It was a more elegant, refined time, one I remember with fondness.A funny travel-by-train story lives in our family: one of my uncles was quite the prankster, and he put my aunt on the train in Chicago bound for Union Station in CA, but on the QT, he told the porters to please take good care of his wife, because she was hard of hearing. When he called her in CA, she said she’d had a good trip, except the porters must have all been a bit deaf, because they all shouted at her! Aloha!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What a funny story, Margo. Your uncle sounds like quite a character — who would even think of such a prank? Envy your traveling by train often as a child in Europe. Part of me longs for a more elegant, refined, “civilized” time. There’s something haunting about the sound of a lonely train whistle, reassuring about the conductor calling out “All Aboard!”, and comforting about the clackety clack of the wheels on the track.

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  6. Fun post, Jama! When my grandmother was a teen, she worked summers as a waitress at Yellowstone National Park. She told us the Pullman cars used to roll in, bringing customers that she and the other waitresses hoped would tip them well. All of the Pullman waiters/attendants were black, which was new and surprising to her since she was from a very non-diverse area. When I saw the top photo, I thought of her story because of the black waiter.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, most of the waiters and chefs were black. Sounds like an interesting experience for your grandmother. There’s so much fascinating history surrounding train travel — blacks worked aboard the trains, Chinese laborers were integral to the construction of the transcontinental railroad.

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  7. I fell in love with trains on my trip from North Carolina to Savannah, GA, with my Girl Scout troop. We did eat in the dining car, but no white table cloths. I remember it being more of a diner feel–but oh so thrilling. My daughter loved the British Rail system (and the National Rail Museum in York) on her stay in England and bemoans the lack of train service here.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I envy the British their rail system (and their Underground). How fun that you also traveled by rail with your Girl Scout troop. I definitely missed that kind of adventure. No passenger trains at all in Hawai’i when I was a brownie.

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  8. I do not have any dining car experiences (I did eat in a dining car once but don’t remember much of it) but as I read you post, music filled my head. I could here Steve Goodman singing City Of New Orleans. Then I started thinking about all the other train related songs I knew. This Train is Bound For Glory and the list goes on.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Oh, my, I’m tired – in a good way – from the journey! Journeys. Love this whole post, thank you. The closest I’ve come to eating in a dining car on a train was probably dining at the Chattanooga Choo Choo a million years ago. But just today, I mailed off a special Etsy order, a train-themed magnet that is to be a gift for a young train enthusiast! :0)

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Oh, how wonderful! I am wondering if “a piedmont” is any old piedmont? Or, if its “the piedmont” of Virginia? From your post I think it’s “my” piedmont in Virginia. I will take a slice of pie with cheese.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Wow, you took us on quite a journey. There’s something so inherently romantic and exciting about train travel, especially when accompanied by such rich surroundings. Well, romantic and exciting when you’re the one sitting in luxury and ordering those delicious meals! (Sauerkraut juice! Really?!) I loved seeing the pictures of the cooks in action in their cramped facilities, too. So much to love here! It reminded me of my very different Eurail pass travels back in the day. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Too funny I just had leftover ham with my breakfast this morning! I too love trains. When we were in Melbourne Australia we did a dinner in a colonial tramcar!!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Wow, wow! Love this!!! Last time I had a meal on a train I was in Europe and they brought the food to us. I was with friends and we had a little compartment all to ourselves. So fun. I love trains and wish that train travel was easier here in the states.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. We ate in a diner car on Christmas once when traveling from MN to ME. It was a strange situation of slow travel, blizzard conditions, running out of food and bathrooms… and long hours with two small children. But totally memorable and fun in its uniqueness!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. My grandmother traveled from Chicago to Colorado every year, and some years took my sisters and I back with her. I LOVED eating in the dining car. Such a treat! Your poem makes me want to get on a train again!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Nope, no dining car experiences to share, Jama. though I feel like I’ve had one after reading this post! I do recall buying a pack of M&M’s from a train snack car at some point, but I have no clue where I was. Just that I was craving chocolate. What else is new? LOL.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Chocolate is always a good choice no matter where you are. πŸ˜€ I have a vague memory of buying a snack on a train too, but can’t remember what I bought.

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  17. Yeah, Jama! I have always loved train rides and I have eaten in a dining car! Several years ago my husband and I travelled to Kansas City from Boston to visit a cousin. While the Boston-DC and Chicago to KC legs were short-ish sitting up journeys, the DC-Chicago leg was on a sleeper. What an adventure, with our own cabin, fold down bed, in-room bathroom, and dining in the dining car. Oh what fun that was! Linens, flowers, china, and proper flatware. — Christie @ https://wonderingandwondering.wordpress.com/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Michelle. Glad you enjoyed all. I had fun daydreaming about riding on those luxury trains and wishing I lived back in the heyday of rail travel in the U.S.

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  18. What a wonderful post, Jama! I’ve never been in an elegant dining car, though I do like to kill some time on the NYC-Washington Amtrak trip in the cafe car. I spent some time in my twenties on British Rail, which I loved, except for the time my train derailed somewhere in the Scottish Highlands. No one was hurt, fortunately. And the passengers were all very composed and polite about it, as we all sat at a 45-degree angle. Keep calm and carry on and so forth.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, that sounds like quite the adventure. 45 degree angle? Yikes! Glad no one was injured. It really is something how the British live by their “Keep Calm and Carry On” motto — well, most of the time. πŸ™‚

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