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|January 1-7, 2009
• Beyond the Food Pyramid
Realistic advice for feeding your kids
by Emily Numm
The other side of the tracks
Train dining has derailed in recent years
by Clay Fong
Departing from Denver’s Union Station, Amtrak’s California Zephyr passenger train wends its way through the Rockies, across the Great Basin, and over the Sierras to its final destination, the Bay Area. I recently rode this train to California, and took this opportunity to sample contemporary railroad fare. Decades ago, trains such as the Zephyr and Santa Fe’s legendary Super Chief were famed for their meals of filet mignon and caviar, washed down with champagne.
Unfortunately, Amtrak’s cost-cutting culture has reduced modern rail dining to a shadow of its former self.
Aside from packing your own food, the train’s two dining options are the spartan snack bar featuring microwave sandwiches and instant oatmeal bowls, or the more luxurious sit-down dining car. Dining car meals are included in sleeper accommodation fares; otherwise it’s first-come, first-serve for coach passengers like myself.
After we pulled out of Winter Park, Jim, the dining car’s genial but efficient chief, announced the first call for lunch. Long-haul trucker Mitch and I hightailed it down to the dining car where an amiable couple who had been in the feedlot business joined us at the table. Due to a disconcerting refrigeration failure, we were informed that the only menu options were a chicken breast sandwich, or a choice of either a veggie or Angus steak burger. Unsurprisingly, Mr. and Mrs. Feedlot ordered the hamburger, as did I. Mitch opted for the meatless sandwich.
While we waited for our food, I noticed that the table settings weren’t quite as elegant as their historical antecedents. The white tablecloth was cut from the same material as disposable shop cloths. Each place setting consisted of individually wrapped pieces of plastic cutlery, and the “china” plates were disposable plastic. A small basket filled with packets of ketchup, mustard and mayo served as the centerpiece. Far more attractive were the exterior landscapes of the Colorado River, which evoked the lyrics of Hank Williams’ “California Zephyr”: “While she’s circling through the canyons can’t you see that mountain stream?”
All things considered, the Angus steak burger, sided with potato chips, wasn’t a bad deal at $7.75. The lettuce, tomato and red onion garnishes were surprisingly fresh-tasting, although the pickle spear had the consistency of a rubber super ball. The bun was hefty and tender, and the meat itself was pleasantly flavorful. A slice of American cheese on top helped, as did ketchup and mustard.
Unfortunately, our server brought Mitch a regular hamburger as opposed to his meatless choice. He accepted his sandwich without complaint and our server brought him a free cranberry juice by way of apology. Dessert was a $2 single-serving cup of vanilla Haagen-Dazs ice cream.
The next morning, against the winter desert backdrop of the Elko-to-Winnemucca, Nev., run, I tried the dining car’s $7.50 French toast, a classic railroad dish. This version disappointed with a texture that was unpleasantly chewy as opposed to fluffy. My $3 side of chicken sausage links was inoffensive, but not particularly memorable. I did, however, appreciate the fact that juice and coffee were included in the price of the French toast. As with lunch, the food was adequate and certainly not up to Super Chief standards. What made these meals memorable was not the food itself, but the spectacular vistas and new friends.
Clay’s obscurity corner
The Golden Age of trains
The Golden Age of American passenger trains such as the California Zephyr and the Super Chief lasted from the 1930s to the 1960s. During this era, railroads would one-up each other by offering such amenities as on-board barber shops and private dining rooms. Cost was no object when it came to meals, and railroads fully expected to lose money on dining. It’s said that Fred Harvey, who ran Santa Fe’s food operations, fired a manager for only going $500 into the red per month. This underperformer was promptly replaced by one who better met the line’s expectations by losing $1,500 monthly.
The California Zephyr Dining Car
Daily departures from Denver’s Union Station,
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