(This is the first in a series of articles tracking a three-week summertime journey from Los Angeles California to Toronto, Ontario, Canada and back.)

By Larry Levine –

Remember those old movies that glamorized train travel, where men in jackets and ties and women in cocktail dresses would appear at the dining car to be served gourmet dinners prepared by chefs on board and presented by waiters in formal uniforms?

Those times are gone. Train food in the U.S. today is barely passable, cooked in galleys and rushed to diners with no elegance and in a frenzy that reads of “hurry up, we have the next group to seat.”

We knew that before we booked passage on the Southwest Chief from Los Angeles to Chicago and back for a mid-summer vacation. We learned from earlier trips on the Coast Starlight between Los Angeles and Seattle that meals on trains in the U.S. today rank closer to college cafeteria fare than to the stuff served to Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in their celluloid travels.

But you don’t travel by train for the food. In our case it was because we wanted to stop in Chicago en route to Ontario Canada for two theatre festivals and a visit with cousins and we didn’t want to fly because of Jennifer’s recent hip surgery.

We did this aware that as a nation the U.S. has no commitment to train travel. While other countries are building first class rail systems and high-speed bullet trains, the U.S. Congress is populated with a perpetual de facto caucus committed to defunding the Amtrak train system and starving it of the resources needed to provide efficient and comfortable service until it finally dies from a lack of patronage.

While more and more passengers are taking food on board for air travel, the notion of packing enough food, keeping it refrigerated and heating it appropriately for six meals on a train from Los Angeles to Chicago isn’t practical. When we started serious train travel on the Coast Starlight between L.A. and Seattle a decade ago, the menus were more extensive and the quality was much higher. But even on that train, which is supposed to be one of the stars of the system, things have fall off drastically in the food department in recent years.

All that aside, we awoke the first morning of our trip from L.A. to Chicago to scenery one cannot see when driving across country. West of Gallup New Mexico we followed along some of the steep walls of erosion shaped streams that feed the Little Colorado River. Water flowed between the rust colored, weather carved banks, but it was July and it looked like one could walk across and not get wet above the ankles. Summer in the desert. And off in the middle distance were the towering formations of pink and rust rock in Red Rock State Park. A stray cow here. A bull standing in the shade of a tree. The American West in full glory.

Then came the intrusion of a sad reality about our America the Beautiful. In the middle of all this scenic beauty stood a battered old house with a wire fence around it. In the front yard a rusting old white  pickup truck was parked between a rusting old Nissan sports car and a bright orange Church of the Nazarene school bus.

We sped by trailer homes and run-down shacks – places where people live so close by the railroad tracks they could toss pebbles and hit the train. We rumbled by and I wonder how those houses stay on their foundations and how they can keep dishes on the tables to eat dinner. The vibration must be like that of an earthquake. And the noise must halt conversation and sleep. It’s poverty, dirt poverty. They are people who have little, yet barbed wire sits atop the fence around a dilapidated “mobile home” as though they were trying to keep the well-to-do folks flying by in the private sleeper cars from stealing anything with their eyes.

The poverty and desolation we see from the train is stupefying. What does it matter for whom these people vote? Their plight is cemented in the social fabric of a nation that is willing to accept the notion of poverty and talks of “helping the poor” but cannot come to grips with the concept of eliminating poverty.

In the face of all this we could criticize how train food has deteriorated in the 10 years or so. On this trip I had the same thing for breakfast, lunch and dinner each day. Breakfast was a virtually tasteless spinach omelette with a side of pretty good instant grits and a cup of coffee. Lunch was a hamburger grilled just minutes short of hockey puck consistency. Only some mustard, lettuce and tomato provided any flavor. Dinner was a roasted half chicken with baked potato and mixed steamed vegetables. In each case I ordered what I thought was the safest thing on the menu. That’s how unattractive the other options were. Jennifer had scrambled eggs the first morning and decided not to repeat that debacle. For lunch both days she had a three-cheese pasta dish that was a step or two up from cafeteria mac and
cheese. Her dinners were another pasta dish with “crab” meat, neither of which did she finish. The worst meal of all was Jennifer’s first-night dinner. Advertised as braised beef, it was some brown colored piece of something with a brown gravy over it. She ate a couple of bites.

The dining table company, however, proved more interesting. We were joined at breakfast the first morning by a couple, who now live in Las Vegas Nevada. She was born in Brooklyn and lived in the same neighborhood in which I lived. He was from Harlem. They were going to visit relatives in East Flatbush, not far from where I grew up. At lunch we shared a table with a man who graduated at Burbank (California) High School in 1966 – seven years after I graduated at the same school. In each instance we were able to talk about old neighborhood landmarks, movie theaters and things we did as kids in high school.

We lunched with a man and his teen aged daughter on their way to Lexington Kentucky, where she was going to add to her collection of horse statues. We lunched with a man born in India and learned of the winding route he took to a teaching job in the other Las Vegas – the one in New Mexico,which is a charming little town well worth a visit. With us that day was a life-long New Yorker who lives on the west side of Manhattan and was bemoaning the demise of H&H Bagels. From another couple we learned about the history of Winslow New Mexico, interesting things we might never have learned any other way. Those kinds of things don’t happen in the privacy of an automobile or the sterility of an airplane. It takes a train to create that kind of homogenization.

Our expectations regarding the food were low when we made the reservations for the trip, so we have to look past that issue and appreciate all we saw and the thoughts stimulated by those sights. We watched lightning dance down from the clouds in the distance on both sides of the train as we traveled through a driving rain storm. And we barreled on through endless fields of corn that have more to do with a foolish commitment to ethanol that with the food supply. And I wondered why cows run away from trains that pass by the same spot many times every day. In between I had time to read and relax.

Would we do it again. We’re going to — in the other direction for the trip home. Once again, however, no expectations when it comes to the food.

(NEXT UP IN THIS SERIES: Chicago, where the menu will include Chicago Dawgs, Italian Beef Sandwiches, a first-ever visit to Wrigley Field and a dinner at Goat and the Girl, a restaurant that makes a visit to Chicago worth it all by itself.)

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