One of the most fascinating experiences, was touring the kitchen/ dining car of the "Pennsylvania Railroad" circa 1940's-1950's. The kitchen was amazing! I was quite impressed with the quality and equipment that the chefs had to work with. But even more so, I had a profound respect and admiration for those that would've spent long hours, days, and even weeks aboard that train in such limited space- turning out the incredible product that would've matched any fine dining experience.
Imagine for a minute, these men and women worked on a MOVING train, with limited space/ resources, and in high temps. Not fun for anyone! As chefs, it's par for the course to work in extremely hot environments, and for long hours. But, in a moving vehicle?? Trains are constantly rocking, swaying, rattling, and can stop or start at any given time, and these chefs had to stabilize themselves while working, (with sharp objects no less!), and prep and cook meals under those circumstances. Crazy!! I read a story about a railroad chef who learned the hard way about baking pies on the train. Let's just say he had quite a surprise when he opened the oven, only to discover that the filling was gone! (The filling was literally knocked out of the shells due to the intense shifting of the train car while baking!) Chefs that worked specific routes learned to time many of their cooking/ baking of specific items based on "smoother" parts of the tracks along that given route, or during elevation changes, (like when going through mountainous regions.) ***Note: due to the intensity of the moving train cars, there are no deep fryers allowed in the kitchens! Also, due to the constant rattling and shifting of items, kitchens are outfitted with special hooks, and equipment to keep the staff safe from injury. Railroad chefs learn to be highly resourceful. They have to be able to come up with impromptu meals in case of delays or emergencies, and they have to be able to cook fabulous meals using limited equipment and ingredients!
The railroads didn't just hire any chef or waiter to work their trains. They specifically sought out TRAINED professionals, who passed certain physical specifications and tests, and who were also tested periodically throughout their employment. Both chefs and waitstaff dressed in full formal uniforms, (as this was the standard for any fine dining establishment or business.) Other newly hired cooks, waitstaff, and assistants all attended classes specified by the railroad to train them on the formalities of food service aboard their trains. For example, because wine was served with dinner, waiters had to learn how to pour the wine efficiently while contending with the constant movement. Not an easy task for anyone!
Dining on trains didn't come about until the mid to late 1800's. Prior to that time, passengers and employees would have to pack their own food, or eat when they got off at different stops along the way. In 1866, a man by the name of George Pullman, introduced the first fine dining car- to appeal to the wealthy, and upper middle class train passengers by serving them exquisite meals. (See the advertisement above within the slide show.) His idea was to invoke a "hotel on wheels"- to make the experience from start to finish a rather luxurious one! Although many railroads had already had food service on their trains by this time, he set the standard for "raising the bar" of the dining experience for passengers. Passengers were served lavish meals- everything from lobster to leg of lamb, and each train became famous for having a special menu item named after that train. (For example, "Chicken a la Century" from the 20th Century Limited.) The dining cars mirrored those of New York's famous "Delmonico" restaurant, among others of it's time. All tables were covered with fine linens, fresh flowers, and fine china that was specific to that railroad. Years later, "coffee shop" or "diner" style cars were added for a more casual style meal on the trains.
Sadly, the "pinnacle" for dining on trains was the 1940's- 1950's. Since that time, there's been a large decline in passenger trains as a whole. The mystique of passenger trains is now a thing of the past, as transportation has switched to planes as a popular means of travel. Amtrak is the leading passenger train still in service across the country. Although they still have dining services available, fine dining has been replaced with a much more casual atmosphere! There are privately owned trains throughout the country that will offer scenic rides with exquisite meals, so if this is an experience you would like to have, simply do some research in your area, as there are some really great opportunities still out there! (Popular for some time now is the "Dinner Mystery" train rides.) So, if you are an avid train enthusiast, (or just adventurous), get out there, and see this amazing country on the rails!