All aboard the dining car days

Eating on a train was an enchanting experience

“Got my bag, got my reservation/Spent each dime I could afford/Like a child in wild anticipation/Long to hear that ‘All aboard!’ ”
-“Sentimental Journey”*

I miss traveling by train, when I eagerly anticipated the journey as much as the destination. For me it was a fleeting chapter during my first two decades of life. In 1971, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation replaced the numerous private railroads that had comfortably moved passengers regionally and across the country. As much as I admire Amtrak for doing its best to keep a glorious means of transport alive, it seems to struggle to survive in the era of the commercial airliner. Even in train-centric Europe, going by rail now is more about speed and efficiency than service and amenities.

What I truly mourn is the demise of the dining car, with its starched linen, polished silver and gleaming crystal. White-coated waiters maneuvered through this intimate space like acrobats, balancing laden trays over their heads on the palms of their hands. The food that emerged from the toy-sized kitchen was impeccably prepared and delicious. Dining while cities and countryside paraded past your window made it all the more enchanting.

Many railroads were noted for dishes served onboard: the Louisville & Nashville Railroad’s New Orleans-style gumbo, the Great Northern’s chicken pie and the Pennsylvania Railroad’s deviled roast beef. The Northern Pacific was famous for its Great Big Baked Potatoes–a spud preparation soon emulated by restaurants nationwide. Trains had names like the 20th Century Limited, the Super Chief and the Empire Builder. The fare often would reflect the train’s itinerary and was sourced along the way. Locomotives that traveled the Eastern Seaboard featured the freshest seafood, dining cars crisscrossing the heartland served prime steaks and California-bound passengers feasted on Rocky Mountain trout and wild game.

Back then, the train didn’t bypass Madison–three major passenger lines served our city. The Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, better known as The Milwaukee Road, had two stations. The main edifice, built in 1903 on West Washington Avenue, still stands today. The east-side terminal on Wilson Street is gone but stood across the street from what today is the Essen Haus. The Milwaukee Road’s signature dish was crabmeat Olympia Hiawatha, named after one of its fleet. In 1910, the Chicago and North Western Railway, trying to outdo its competitors, opened a striking new depot on Blount Street that today functions as offices for Madison Gas and Electric. The North Western is remembered for many salad specialties, including its version of salad à la Russe, the Salamagundy, composed of marinated potatoes, beets, vegetables and ham with a mayonnaise dressing. The Illinois Central Railroad station was at the corner of West Washington Avenue and South Bedford Street (where the CVS Pharmacy is now). The Panama Limited that traveled its mainline from Chicago to New Orleans inspired menus based on the southern destination, including legendary shrimp Creole served with hush puppies.

With no distractions and no rush to be anywhere, dining was never as enjoyable as on the train. Just good food to savor as you watched the world go by.

Dan Curd is a Madison-based food writer who has written for the magazine for more than 20 years.

* “Sentimental Journey,” by Benjamin Homer, Bud Green, Les Brown, Copyright Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.