Foods on the Rails – and Off

By Michael D. Riley, M.S.

North America’s transcontinental railroads were built in the Nineteenth Century by laborers drawn from all over the world. In the western United States, Chinese workers were imported to labor at low wages. Most of them slept on the ground beside the site where their work ended that day. Many carried a supply of soy sauce in a screw-topped tin, to season and flavor the rice and occasional chicken they could stew on a campfire after the ingredients were provided to them by local merchants.

One of the imported recipes these laborers favored was for a condiment that came to be called “Chow Chow.” The dish remains popular even today, in parts of Tennessee. One online source for a recipe credits it to The Original Tennessee Homecoming Cookbook. Here it is:

Railroad Worker’s Metal Lunch/ Dinner Bucket
  • 1 gallon small green tomatoes                      
  • 14 large onions
  • 6 hot peppers (such as jalapeno)
  • 12 sweet peppers
  • 2 medium cabbages
  • 6 cucumbers
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 9 cups apple cider vinegar
  • 7 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1/2 box pickling spice, tied in bag

Grind tomatoes, onions, hot and sweet peppers, cabbage and cucumbers in food processor. Add salt and pepper to taste (about 1/4 cup each). Let drain well. Squeeze out as much liquid as possible with hands. Combine vinegar, sugar and spice, and bring to a boil. Add vegetable mixture and simmer for 30 minutes. Place in hot jars and seal.

Lib’s Chow Chow

It’s likely that these “coolie” Chinese workers often shared the meals that they prepared with their fellows, Asian or not, in exchange for a penny or two. We further speculate that after their work on the railways was completed, entrepreneurs among these former laborers and cooks may account for the fact that many of the first American restaurants to serve ethnic cuisines were owned and operated by Chinese cooks (or in contemporary parlance “chefs”), as well as by Italians. Until the beginning of the 20th Century, only larger cities featured restaurants serving German or French fare as well. America’s first commercial pizzeria, Lombardi’s, didn’t open in Manhattan’s Soho District until 1905. Incidentally, the place is still open (in a new location in Chelsea) and still serves marvelous Neapolitan-style pies.

Before fast-food operators had made convenient dining spots widely available, long-distance rail operators had to provide the crews and conductors who operated their trains with limited kitchen and sleeping facilities. This need resulted in one of the most colorfully named rail car types of all times: North America’s caboose (called brake vans or crew cars in Commonwealth countries). Modern track monitoring and safety technology, coupled with relaxed safety laws, have made these kinds of cars obsolescent, confined to a few narrow applications.

Not long after that, the wealthy who chose to use passenger railroad trains for their long-distance travels around North America decided to acquire and outfit their own private passenger rail cars. These cars were often outfitted with both lounges and small kitchens to permit domestic staffers to prepare and serve food to their employer-travelers.

These railcars were the Nineteenth and early-Twentieth Century equivalent of the private jet planes now used by the wealthy, celebrities and executives for longer-range travel. Private rail passenger cars provided privacy and comfort that was not offered to the public at large by the passenger rail lines that sold tickets to commoners like us.

The passenger rail lines responded by adding rail cars dedicated to providing train passengers with onboard dining opportunities. These “dining cars” often featured full kitchens and white tablecloth-covered tables, as well as liveried porters to take orders from passengers’ choices from menus and to carry the plates and glassware to and from tables. Before long, rail lines began to recognize that travelers had begun to choose which line to use based on their reputation for culinary skill. The same kind of marketing competition used to take place between airlines, while they still featured full-menu food service to both coach and first-class passengers. To some degree, the same strategies are employed by cruise line brands.

Surprisingly, today’s Amtrak continues to compete for more customers by offering tradional fine dining options on the following runs: Auto Train Menu, Coast Starlight Menu, Empire Builder Menu,

Southwest Chief Menu, Sunset Limited Menu, and the Texas Eagle Menu. Reservations for breakfast, lunch and dinner can be made for service from 6:30AM to 9:00PM.

But as an interesting relic of the time when other passenger rail lines used the quality of their food offering to compete with each other, the Internet hosts a number of places which display the best recipes of various dining car brands. As an example, see the 1902 Southern Pacific Railroad Rice Cookbook on web page  On first discovery, we hoped that the recipes might reflect the Asian influence of some of the Chinese laborers who became chefs after their work on building the rail lines was done. But upon closer inspection, most of the recipes seem to be extremely simplified (even crude) versions of traditional Cajun and Southern United States favorites.

Amazon features a hardbound cookbook named From the Dining Car: The Recipes and Stories Behind Today’s Greatest Rail Dining Experiences by James D. Porterfield. The book was first published on 2004, and is now out of print. However, “like new” used copies are available for $49.20USD at  Reviewers seem to have liked the contents, giving a 4.3 out of 5 star rating. Some of the recipes it includes are listed as sweet and spicy alaska spot prawns, autumn pear salad with gorgonzola and spiced pecans, chicken breast stuffed with wild mushrooms and smoked gouda, and bread pudding with butter bourbon sauce.

Sounds yummy.

Another interesting source of railroad recipes can be found at Railroad Archives’ “Miscellaneous Railroad Recipes” web page, to be found here:

Links on that page lead to the following recipe collections and cookbooks: Union Pacific: “150 Apple Dishes Recipes”; Great Northern Railway: “Chefs’ Recipes Secrets – Oriental Limited”; Southern Pacific: Recipes – 1940 Public Brochure as well as 1952 and 1955 Public Brochures; Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Dining Car Recipes; Union Pacific Magazine: “Dining Car Recipes”; Union Pacific Research Kitchen Cards; Southern Railway Recipe Cards.

Have we made you hungry yet? If so, heed the call: “AAAAALL ABOARD!”

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