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Holiday Dining on the Rails

With the holidays approaching like a speeding locomotive, many of us wonder what might be on the table this year for us to feast our eyes and tummy’s on. Most of us dream of that home-cooked meal for Thanksgiving or Christmas, as the snow falls outside and the fireplace crackles. Perhaps, this year, we may be with immediate family or in small groups, but the fun and food will still be there. Some may go out to eat. Others may travel. For many of us, the meal at the end of the journey and the time spent with family and friends are the most important parts of the day.

In the heyday of the railroads, many traveled around the holidays by train to meet loved ones or take holiday vacations and get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Some journeys by rail could be long trips, while others would be short, but one thing remained constant, the fine dining experience that everyone could enjoy.

While the menu on a dining car was exquisite and comparable to many 5-star restaurants found in most major cities, the holiday menu was even grander, and the chefs and stewards worked extra hard to prepare a meal to remember on those momentous holiday trips. In addition to the already prosperous and abundant menu available, special items were added to the menu during the holidays. Some of these were rarities, and many were standards with a unique holiday twist added.

Let’s jump to the early 1950s. The meal’s centerpiece was the turkey for both Thanksgiving and Christmas. These elegant examples of culinary wonder usually weighed around fourteen pounds, took about five hours to roast. It was cooked on board and served to passengers fresh and hot, unlike today where many travel foods are cooked in a central kitchen and just reheated before being served to travelers. Virtually every railroad that carried patrons served a fantastic meal and went through thousands of turkeys and several hams. To give a perspective on numbers, on Christmas day in 1951, the Pennsylvania Railroad alone served over 3,500 roast turkeys across its various dining cars.


a close up of a glass of beer on a tableLet’s assemble a menu combining various recipes from the era by several prominent railroads and see what we come up with.  Let’s start with a beverage called the Horse’s Neck provided to us by the Pullman Company:

            • Take a lemon and peel it in a spiral fashion, keeping it in one piece.
            • Place a single ice cube in a 14-ounce glass and arrange the lemon peel inside the length of the glass, holding one end draped of the lemon over the side of the glass.
            • Fill the glass with 12-ounces of pale, dry, or imported ginger ale. Stir slightly with a spoon, taking care not to dislodge the lemon peel. Serve immediately.


Next, let’s move on to our appetizer. We have a tasty Poinsettia Salad, prepared aboard the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad’s Merchants’ Limited, bound for New York City from Boston.

  • Peel half a dozen medium, ripe tomatoes and boil them. After boiling, put them in the refrigerator to chill before use.
  • While the tomatoes are boiling, in a bowl, combine six tablespoons of cream cheese, three teaspoons of heavy cream, a quarter of a teaspoon of salt, and one-eighth of a teaspoon pepper, and stir until smooth.
  •  Cut each tomato into eight sections from top to bottom, being careful not to sever at the base. Fold back the eight petals to form a flower, leaving the center pulp intact.
  • Place the cream cheese/cream mixture on the center pulp.
  • Hard boil six eggs. Peel the shell and separate the yokes from the egg white.
  • Crumble the yoke, combining it with cheese, sprinkling it lightly over the cream cheese mixture to represent the flower’s yellow interior.
  • To serve, place each “flower” on a slice of lettuce in a salad bowl so that it looks like a poinsettia. French dressing may be served on the side.


a plate of food with rice meat and vegetablesMoving onto our entree, we have one of those fourteen-pound turkeys with Poultry Stuffing provided by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad.

  • Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
  • Place twelve cups of day-old breadcrumbs into a mixing bowl and moisten well with 1-1/2 cups of rich chicken broth. Take care not to make it too soggy.
  •  In a skillet, sauté 1/3 cup of minced bacon and 1/3 cup of minced ham over medium heat until done. It usually takes about 5 minutes.
  •  Add 3/4 cup of finely minced onions and 1/2 cup of diced celery. Sauté vegetables are soft, and the onions translucent but not brown.
  • Finely chop the turkey liver, add to vegetables and other meat, and cook for a few minutes.
  • Remove from heat, stir in breadcrumbs, and mix thoroughly, adding in 1-1/2 cup of poultry seasoning, a 1/4 teaspoon of salt, 1/8 teaspoon of pepper, and 1/3 cup of chopped parsley.
  • Beat two eggs and mix with a tablespoon of milk and pour into the dressing mix, stirring well together.
  • When stuffing a turkey, bake the stuffing at 350 degrees in the oven for 20 minutes, then stuff the bird. If using alone, place stuffing in a well-greased pan, adding any stock to moisten, sprinkle some butter on top and bake at 350 degrees in the oven for 35 to 50 minutes.


A fresh baked turkey always goes good with a little relish. Let’s try some Cape Cod Cranberry Relish from the New Haven Railroad.

  • Start by washing and draining the one pound of cranberries.
  • Peel and cut one large orange into wedges to fit into a meat grinder, removing any seeds in the process.
  • Core one large, unpeeled red delicious apple and cut into wedges to fit meat grinder, as well.
  • Run the cranberry, orange, and apple mixture through the grinder.
  •  Add two cups of sugar as needed and mix well.
  • Cover and chill for at least two hours before serving.


Let’s just to the west coast aboard the Southern Pacific to get some Puff Potatoes.

  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  • Peel and cut about half a dozen medium, white potatoes.
  • Place the potatoes in a saucepan and cover with boiling water, add salt for taste and return to boil, cooking until done for about 20 minutes.
  • Drain well and return the saucepan to the stovetop to thoroughly dry potatoes. After they are dry, mash the potatoes, add two ounces of butter, mix, and then add three egg yolks, mix again and finally add a pinch of nutmeg, mixing once again.
  • Place potatoes on a lightly floured pastry board, dusting with flour, then rolling into finger-length pieces.
  • Set on a buttered baking sheet about one inch apart, brushing with milk and egg, and bake until nicely brown, about 10 minutes.


a bowl of food on a plateNow that we have our potatoes, how about we sweeten things up with some Sweet Potato Puffs, courtesy of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

  • Butter a cookie sheet and set aside.
  • Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.
  • In a mixing bowl, beat one egg yolk slightly and add two cups of cold, cooked mashed sweet potatoes, two tablespoons of melted butter, and a 1/2 teaspoon salt.
  • Mix thoroughly and divide into six portions. Roll each piece between sheets of waxed paper to flatten into the shape of a pancake.
  •  Place one marshmallow in the center of each of the six portions.
  • Carefully pull potato mixture up around marshmallow, leaving a small opening on the top.
  • Roll the sweet potato balls in one cup of crushed rice flakes and place on the buttered cookie sheet.
  • Bake for 15 minutes. Serve hot.


To keep things rolling, let’s next check out some Buttered Beets, presented to you by the Union Pacific Railroad.

  • Take three cups of cooked beets, drain, and put the drained liquid into a saucepan.
  • Add 1/4 teaspoon of salt, 1/8 teaspoon of white pepper, and one tablespoon each of butter and white vinegar.
  • Dice beets add to the liquid and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until heated through about five minutes. Serve using a slotted spoon, draining off all liquid first. Drizzle melted butter over beets just before serving.


Last but not least, going along with our entree, we need some more hearty vegetables, and why not top it off with some Carrots Vichy from the eastern seaboard on the Chesapeake and Ohio.

  • Take a large saucepan and add 1-1/2 pounds of sliced carrots, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, 1/4 teaspoon of pepper, a tablespoon of butter, a tablespoon of sugar, and a half teaspoon of instant chicken bouillon.
  • Add just enough water to cover. Stir to mix and bring to a boil.
  • Reduce heat and slow boil, uncovered, until carrots are cooked to desired tenderness; about 10 minutes should do it. Most of the liquid should evaporate; drain the excess.
  • Sprinkle with half of a tablespoon of chopped parsley before serving.


Finally, what are the holidays without that serving or two of pie? Being from Wisconsin, I’ve always loved cranberries; we are the cranberry capital of the world in case anyone needed reminding.  The Alaska Railroad does a delicious take on a Cranberry Pie.

  • Start by preheating the oven to 350 degrees.
  • In a saucepan, combine 1-1/4 cups of sugar and two tablespoons of flour, adding 3/4 of a cup of water, 2/3 of a cup of raisins, and two cups of cranberries. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes.
  • Remove from heat and let it cool to room temperature.
  •  Stir in a teaspoon of vanilla and pour the mixture into an unbaked, 9-inch pie crust shell with a rim and cover with a lattice top. You can make a homemade crust if you choose or buy a store made one, your choice.
  • Bake 40 to 50 minutes until crust is brown; cool before serving.


As partial as I am to cranberries, my all-time favorite pie of the season is a Pumpkin Pie. The Missouri Pacific Railroad takes a swing at this number to round out our holiday menu.

                  • Preheat your oven, this time to 375 degrees.
                  • In a large mixing bowl, combine 1-1/2 cups of sugar, 1-1/2 ounces of butter, a half of a cup of light cream, one cup of milk, four whole eggs, 1/4 cup of molasses, one teaspoon of pumpkin spice, and a pinch of salt and beat thoroughly.
                  • Add a 2-1/2 pound can of pumpkin puree and continue beating until smooth.
                  • Fill two pie tins lined with unbaked dough and bake for about 45 to 60 minutes. To check for doneness, take a knife and place the tip into the pie about an inch from the crust. If the blade comes out clean, the pie is done baking.


What a combination! What a meal this would make! Just one of many prepared by the railroads in the zenith of travel across the country. So, as you settle into the holidays and are looking to try something different, try a few recipes from the bygone years of railroad travel. There are many to choose from, so many in fact, that no matter your taste, there is something for everyone. Have a happy holiday season!



Written by Justin Lambrecht, education assistant


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