|Norman Rockwell, "Boy in Dining Car," 1946. (Source)|
Dining cars were especially notable on the Western routes of the great train companies. Railroad management made a commitment to ensuring high quality of meals, impeccable service by uniformed waiters, and the luxury of elegant tableware and linens in their well-appointed dining cars. Such amenities were a key factor in competition for passengers on the various railway lines with common destinations. I learned -- to my amazement -- that meal service was always provided at a loss to the rail line; for $1 that a passenger paid the railroads would spend as much as $1.85 (though mostly not quite that much).
The cost of labor was the main factor in the expenses of a dining car. Porterfield provides a very interesting study of the men -- and rarely women -- who prepared, served, cleaned, planned, and ordered the provisions. All cooking, all bread-baking, and all washing-up was done on the moving train, in very close quarters, with the cooks subject to the extreme heat of the tiny dining-car kitchens. Unlike in restaurants, every employee had several duties including all types of cooking, dishwashing, sorting linens, polishing silverware, and other work in the kitchen or dining room.
Because of a variety of circumstances, the majority of these workers were Black. The fact that they had good, long-term jobs had a role in Black American history; however, that's not my subject for today.
As I read both the historic part of Dining by Rail and also the cookbook part of the book, I felt more and more that these foods, these recipes, these experiences embody the answer to the repeatedly asked question:
What is American Food?
"In an age when caloric intake was not a consideration, a typical dinner menu might offer sirloin, tenderloin, porterhouse, or venison steak, prairie chicken, snipe, quail, golden plover, blue-winged teal, woodcock, broiled pigeon, mallard, widgeon, canvasback or domestic duck, wild turkey, veal, mutton, chicken, roast pork, sixteen relishes, eleven clam and oyster dishes, five fish dishes, fifteen kinds of bread, as well as many soups." (p. 148)
|An early dining car kitchen. (Source)|