This Collection Of Vintage Railroad Menus Gives A Glimpse Into Meals Past

There seems to be a lost art of the menu. QSR codes and daily printouts have replaced leatherbound, embossed cardstock with a thoughtfully chosen font. Thanks to collections like the New York Public Library's, we are able to visit historical menus and be transported to a different time. A Northwestern alumnus, Ira Silverman, has made this possible for railway travel. He donated his extensive collection of 238 menus from train travel, mostly between 1960-1971, to the school's existing Transportation Library (via Northwestern).

These recipes harken back to the days when travel used to be synonymous with luxury and the railroad was romanticized — when there were no tray tables or plastic-wrapped utensils, and dinner was served with white gloves, a linen napkin, and china plates — when passengers were rocked to sleep with full bellies and red wine-stained lips.

With Amtrak going the way of the airlines and retiring dining service in favor of packaged foods, it's worth exploring vintage menus and meals of the railways. The menu covers themselves are works of art and spoke to the spirit of the particular line you were traveling on. Cowboys donned the covers of the western lines, and Don and Betty Draper doppelgangers graced the cover of the New Haven line. The sticker shock alone will leave you slack-jawed at how far the dollar has fallen, but what did the meals actually entail?

Highlights from the tracks

Dubbed the golden age of rail travel, per The International Wine & Food Society, the 1930s through 1950s led to many modern-day conveniences. Bisquick batter was apparently invented on trains; the Pullman loaf of bread was built for stacking on a Pullman train, and bacon made in the oven so that it wouldn't curl but lie flat stems from a dining car kitchen. Most of Mr. Silverman's collection comes in right on the heels of that golden age, and the shift in America's eating habits is evident amongst the pages of the menus.

Some of the most popular dishes from the collection's 227 menus and 13 pamphlets are sardines, standard continental breakfasts, and kids' menus, coupled with the fact that a cheese course post-entrée was par for the course. Wine, liquor, milk, and coffee (even iced) grace the beverage sections, and ice cream sundaes share a dessert spot on most of the collection's menus (via Northwestern).

One menu from that golden age, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway Company Menu, Santa Fe dining car service in 1943, has less-common offerings such as Wisconson duckling, consommé, and whitefish hoteliere. But sardines, Melba toast, and Sanka coffee are still to be found. A couple of menu items that may require a present-day search engine are snowflake potatoes (mashed potatoes with cream cheese and sour cream, per Bargain Hunter) from the Illinois Central Railroad Company Menu, Dinner Menu, 1963, and a fried disjointed spring chicken (simply dismembered before cooking) aboard the Union Pacific Railroad Company Menu, 1962.