A truck zooms by as we lumber past fields of corn stubble. Diehard rail riders haven’t paid four times the bargain one-way airfare from New York to Chicago to cover the same distance in 18 hours instead of two because we care about speed.
Aboard the Lake Shore Limited: We board midweek in the Big Apple to eat a steak that is about to disappear: strip steak, grilled by a chef in a railroad kitchen and served on a china plate. In the heyday of train travel, these diner cars provided passengers with a taste of the high life. Even today, a few trains still serve savory, classy, gentleman’s meals. Breakfast Wednesday is fresh-cooked, rub-your-hands delicious.
On the Rails: The Amtrak menu will soon be an artifact of a vanished era. On April 24, Amtrak will close down the Lake Shore Limited’s chef-run galley. All the rest will be gone by the end of May. Some long-haul routes have already converted to pre-portioned, pre-cooked meals, reheated and served on plastic. Cardboard simulacra.
Amtrak says the change makes it possible to expand the menu and, since most of the new plats du jour can be prepared quickly, to serve more people each night. The steak has been replaced with three new pre-cooked beef selections.Even this retrenchment, ordered by Congress in an attempt to cut losses on the dinosaur long-hauls, may not last more than a year, according to veteran waiter, Trevor. A bare-bones food-delivery system with microwave “cooking” looms in the future, Alex predicts.
A Luddite, I deplore this devolution of the railway diner from those glory days of rolling refreshment one could take for granted from the 1940s to the mid-’50s. Mythic trains: The Wolverine from Detroit to Chicago boasted crystal and napery and gracious service. The Santa Fe Super Chief, an 8-year-old’s fantasy of elegance-made-real,
had its own private dining room.
These spawned a royal romantic culture of rail travel, in movies such as “Twentieth Century” or Mary McCarthy’s once-daring story of a sleeping-car romance, The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt. Now we have that diminished thing, the airplane disaster ready-made. Where “snacks” are measly king.
Those who remember a better, slower time take to the rails. This winter, Ginny Lesh, a writer with eight children who has spent 40 years, half her life, in the remote hamlet of Gustavus, Alaska, crisscrossed the lower 48 on Amtrak. Here she was, somewhere west of Albany, savoring the spectacle of Alex serving the entire diner by himself. Trevor, with the grace of an ice dancer at Lillehammer. Sleek and lank, Trevor swoops down the narrow aisle, his large salver aloft, loaded with braised lamb shanks, seared catfish blackened in the Cajun manner, or rotisserie chicken, garlicky garnished with two al dente vegetables. Reaching his destination, he pirouettes, lowers the tray in a smooth swoop until it lands UFO light, and serves each royal dinner in a quadruple lutz of spinning download.
About that steak: a Kobe-tender 10-ounce strip, corn-fed, aged three weeks. And hand-cut. Yes, it’s thin, but the chefs in their tiny mess have grilled it to perfection. The meat is tender and au poivre. I could have had it blackened–but why? The once of unadorned beauty. The baked potato shares honors with blanched broccoli and baby carrots, each a sweet-and-sour tang. To wash it down, follow the menu suggestion: Order the cabernet. The half-bottle of Hahn, from the central California coast, (the set of wine-besotted “Sideways” film,) is more than drinkable, ever-so California – mouth-filling, smile-wide friendly. Certainly worth the $12 surcharge. For the sleeping-car passenger, meals are pinataed into the price of your ticket.
Maybe a jot pretentious to quote from the French
gastronome, sage Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, on the bill of fare…Maybe a jot pretentious to quote from the French gastronome, sage Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, on the bill of fare. “Menu” came along after the turn of the 20th century. Especially when they wrong his name. But you have to admire the ambition of these rail men, taking as their motto Brillat-Savarin’s epigram: “The discovery of a new dish does more for the happiness of the human race than the find of a planet.” Optimism lifts the gastric juices. Whoever put the menu together must have set out to link it with gastronomic traditions from all regions of the land. Desserts beckon and dance, from Mississippi mudcake, a flooded delta of profound chocolate, to New Yorky cheesecake and Floridian key lime pie. Nostalgics for ye soda fountains of youth can call down dredge-y hi-cal strawberry en-goo-sion, whupped cream or choco-chocolate sauce.
The menu will soon be the sole remnant of full-service railroad dining on the map. Its cover is an Art Deco image of
Manhattan skyline, a lit-up train, and aspiring ‘scrapers reflected in the Hudson. Only Fred Astaire, top hat and tails flying, is absent, whirling like Alex, to complete this icon of the good life that starts when the conductor intones “All aboard!” Indiana slips away — Elkhart, musical instrument-making heart; South Bend, home of Notre Dame, marching bands and the crash of football helmets. The only constant is the susurrus of steel wheels. I scour my complimentary paper, dimly logy from the excellent breakfast of two perfect sunny-side-uppers and recent fish
with hash browns that reliable Trevor portered with acrobatic élan.
At 10:45, 90 minutes late, we judder into Chicago’s stately Union Station. I make my noon flight, where the only food is ‘cheese’ crackers, and I want. The creaky Lake Shore Ltd., which looks better and better. We’ll never see its like again. My head plays the Jimmy Buffett tune, “I ate the last mango in Paris,” with new lyrics ~ “I ate the last steak on Amtrak. Caught the last diner out of Noo York.” And Jimmy, there’s nuthin’ more to be done. Nuthin’ more!