For a taste of the rails this holiday season just add butter

Posted by Justin Franz
on Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Enjoying a meal aboard a train is always a memorable experience. Photo by Justin Franz.
November is a time for cooking. The days are getting shorter, the weather is getting cooler and there is less and less to do outside. November also features that classic American celebration of culinary excess, Thanksgiving. In preparation for Thanksgiving, my fiancée and I like to throw what we call “Friendsgiving,” a dinner party a week or two before the big event. It’s a great opportunity to see friends before they head home for the holiday and it’s a good time to practice cooking a turkey if you’re a rookie (after all, it’s better to give your friends food poisoning than your future mother-in-law).

This year, in preparation for the holidays, I decided to break out James D. Porterfeild’s book “Dining by Rail” to see if there were any recipes that could add some flare to this year’s menu. Flipping through the recipes (the book includes a history of dining cars and dozens of authentic railroad recipes from the Atlantic Coast Line to the Western Pacific) I quickly realized a the secret ingredient to many of the dishes: butter and lots of it. The extravagant amount of butter reminded me of a piece of advice I got on the first job I ever had in a kitchen while I was in high school, “that you can never add too much butter.”

Normally, I wouldn’t be too worried about an excessive amount of butter, but I’ve got to fit into a suit for a wedding in less than a year, so I’m trying to stay away from the stuff. Unfortunately, Porterfield’s book has few low-calorie and even the Southern Pacific “salad” requires two cups of mayonnaise. Of course, as the author notes, these recipes come from “an age when caloric intake was not a consideration.”

I missed the age of rail travel when the diner ruled the rails, but I have had the opportunity to have a meal or two aboard Amtrak. Sure, the reheated fare of today is nothing compared to the New Haven’s Lobster Thermidor but I do have special memories of those meals. Perhaps the greatest part of eating aboard the train is the fact that you’re often seated with complete strangers. One of my favorite experiences aboard the train was back in college when I was heading home for Christmas aboard the Lake Shore Limited and ate dinner with a farmer from Montana, an Army reserve officer and a single mom. A decade later, I can’t remember exactly what we talked about but the experience was memorable nonetheless. After food and a few drinks, we all wished each other happy holidays and returned to our seats. None of us ever saw each other again, but for a few fleeting moments we were friends catching up and getting to know each other.

In many ways, that’s the real secret ingredient of dinner in the diner.

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