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Monday, May 11, 2020

Motion Sickness

From the Food Vault Dept.: Harkening back to the days of luxury travel . . . well, this isn’t quite it. It’s what passed for dining on Amtrak’s Montrealer in 1986, although it’s still a damn sight better than what’s offered now. Or will be, when it makes sense once again to travel by train.


“OVERNIGHT TRIPS ARE WHAT train travel is all about,” I assured my wife as we planned our vacation. “You get your bedroom – for a price – and best of all, you get to eat in the dining car.”

Amtrak's "Le Pub," c. 1973
My pleasant memories came from a series of trips I took between New York and Chicago many years ago. I waxed reminiscent. “The tables have thick white cloths on them. Fresh flowers in a heavy metal vase. All of the dinner service has a great sturdiness to resist the motion of the train.

“There’s a kitchen at one end of the car, and the meal is cooked fresh, served by waiters who have been in the business for years. The closest thing to that is the feel of Hattie’s Chicken Shack in Saratoga.

“And you order on a little slip that’s placed on the table with your menu. No verbal orders. Oh, I know the choices have dwindled down to three or four and I’m sure that microwave ovens have crept into those kitchens, but still, there’s nothing like dining on sautéed filet of sole as the plains of Ohio sweep by.”

And so we traveled from Montreal to New York overnight on the Montrealer. On the seat in our bedroom was a blue and white pamphlet titled Montrealer Today that gave some puffery about the cities along the line, and a disturbing hint of what was in store for dinner. The dining car of yore had been replaced with “our new ‘Le Pub’ lounge car,” that was supposed to feature “live onboard entertainment daily.”

“Well, they couldn’t put the pub car on this trip,” our attendant explained. “It’s broken. But there’s a regular lounge car.”

“No dining car?”

No dining car.

However, as first-class passengers, dinner and breakfast were complimentary. We were given a pair of cards to present to our waiter to signify that.

“Still, we get a choice of four entrées,” Susan said hopefully. Twin vegetable crepes, breast of chicken brochettes, seafood brochettes, and filet of beef brochettes. “Well, maybe not,” she concluded. “It sounds like the same thing. In four different colors.”

A lounge car means no white tablecloths, no flowers. No weighty dinner service, either; just a big plastic tabletop “They could have put tablecloths on,” she suggested, but the rest of the meal proved that such a thing would be very much out of place.

We ordered – surprise – brochettes, one each of chicken and beef. We were served two orders of seafood.

It took a little while to realize that, however, because what was placed before me was a little plastic tub with a cellophane top. It had hot items within, so the top was frosted with condensation. And there was a plastic knife-fork-spoon-napkin kit, all of which made even the humblest of airplane fare look sophisticated.

We stopped the hostess, who it turned out was on her way to the next table to remove our order, which they had plunged into.

“Sorry it’s been opened,” she said, removing the seafood and giving us the correct tubs.

“It’s just as well,” I told her. “This way I can see that the grapes are all moldy.” Dessert was a small tub within the tub, a collection of seedless Thompsons, furry with growth. She removed it and replaced it.

I doubt that the bits of chicken that comprised my brochette would pass muster for Chicken McNuggets even. A clever rubber replica would have been more palatable than the wooden lumps that clung to the skewer. At least, they were moderately warm, a characteristic not shared by the tub of vegetables.

Susan’s meal was identical except that the meat was of a darker hue. Her dessert was a tub of apple bits in goo, unless the viscous liquid was the excretion of aged apples. We didn’t bother to find out.

The meal, roughly the size of a Stephen King hardcover novel and certainly as frightening, is called “Le Pub Dinner Caddy” on the menu. “A five-course meal sure to satisfy the hungry traveler – including appetizer, salad, choice of entrée, French pastry and choice of beverage – coffee, tea or milk.”

The person who wrote that should be forced to eat one of those meals. It is astonishing that standards have sunk so low at Amtrak that this garbage is served with a brave attempt at pride – or maybe it’s just an attitude of complete resignation to the efflorescence of mediocrity.

Back in our room we tore into a snack-pack of candy and cheeses, all wrapped with as much plastic as there was food, although with such processed stuff you can’t be sure where food leaves off and the plastic begins.

At least a complimentary bottle of bad wine is also provided. A few of them are necessary to wash away the disappointment of the meal.

I had no illusions about “Le Pub Breakfast Caddy”: “A hearty, high-protein way to start the day,” that was rumored to include fruit, cheese, eggs, ham and pastry. I also had no Breakfast Caddy: they were all out. We had instead “The American Breakfast.” Bread, butter, and sugar. A stale idea, with stale bread to match.

If there is any consolation, it’s that they don’t charge first-class passengers for the stuff. I feel sorry for the coach travelers.

We watched the sun come up over Bridgeport and vowed that, should we take the overnight train again, we’d pack a gourmet meal.

“Maybe we could sell it to the other passengers,” Susan mused.

Metroland Magazine, 6 March 1986

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