Dinner in the Diner

Back in the day when travel was an adventure and most people got from here to there by rail, one of the highlights of any trip was taking a meal in the dining car. For many, the amazing food and impeccable service was made even better by the pleasure of meeting new people and making new friends while sharing a delicious meal together in the rolling diner. The constantly changing view of “America the Beautiful,” going past the large panoramic windows as you roll along, always added to the experience.

The railroads would often specialize in serving regional favorites in their dining cars that represented the part of the country through which you were traveling. Thus, if you were on board the Union Pacific, you might have one of their famous Omaha “Prime Steaks.” If you were riding on the Northern Pacific, you could enjoy a “Great Big Baked Potato” from Idaho. Riders going through the Rockies on Missouri Pacific’s “Colorado Eagle” were served delicious rainbow trout. The Southern Pacific was known for the Cajun gumbo they featured on their trains in and out of New Orleans, and the Maryland Crab Cakes on the Baltimore & Ohio RR were the stuff of legend.

This charger plate was used on dining cars of the Missouri Pacific and Texas & Pacific lines.
It featured the official flowers of the states served by those railroads.

And the Texas & Pacific? Well, it seems that the railroad that founded Abilene and crossed West Texas was nationally famous for a dessert: Cantaloupe Pie.

Back in 1916, Mr. M.L. Todd and his business partner, Mr. D.T. McKee, began growing cantaloupes in Pecos, Texas. They contracted with the T&P and agreed to supply them with cantaloupes for their dining cars.  By the 1920s, they were shipping cases of melons via Railway Express all over the country. But of course, as with any perishable commodity, some of the fruit would become overripe on its way to market. That’s where Mr. Edward Pierce enters the picture. Mr. Pierce was a College Station native and a 42-year veteran of the T&P, and he couldn’t stand seeing the melons go to waste, overripe or not. He went to work and came up with a dessert that became a favorite on the T&P dining cars.

Happily, in 1992, a writer for the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, Anita Baker, tracked down Mr. Pierce, who shared his recipe, which we pass along to you below. Serve it to your guests to enjoy a taste of elegant travel from days gone by.

For what it’s worth, I have made this pie. It’s NOT terribly sweet, but personally, that’s okay with me. In some ways, it’s reminiscent of a sweet potato pie. You could also try baking the pie without adding the meringue, then covering it with a whipped cream topping, or even vanilla ice cream, if that’s more your style.

By the way, if you’re interested, there are several excellent books that feature compilations of the best dining car recipes. Two of my favorites are Dining By Rail by James D. Porterfield, and Dinner in the Diner by Will C. Holister. The cantaloupe pie recipe is included in both collections.

I have been fortunate enough to enjoy several meals on railroad dining cars, and the food has always been excellent – as also has been the pleasure of sharing a meal with friends, old or new. As we progress in putting the pandemic behind us, let’s continue to be safe, but let us also look for ways of rebuilding community and relationships; eating together is one of the best ways to make that happen. Like passengers on a train, we will find that our journey through life is more interesting and pleasant as we make friends along the way.

Cantaloupe Pie as served on the T&P Rwy

Ingredients

  • 1 very ripe cantaloupe (over ripe yields the most juice)
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 cups sugar
  • 3 tablespoons flour (more or less depending on how juicy your cantaloupe is)
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 9-inch prebaked pie crust
  • 3 egg whites
  • 6 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Directions

  1. Slice cantaloupe in half, de-seed and remove rind, reserving all juices. Cut into small pieces.
  2. Place melon with juice and water into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer for 5 minutes, stirring often. Mash the cantaloupe as it heats.
  3. Mix sugar and flour and slowly add to hot mixture, stirring constantly.
  4. In a large bowl, beat egg yolks; add a little water to yolks. Add a little of the cantaloupe mixture to egg yolks in order to heat yolks gradually. Stir egg yolks mixture into cantaloupe mixture.
    Add butter and nutmeg, stir until butter melts. Continue cooking, stirring, until thick and creamy.
  5. Cool and pour into prebaked pie crust.
  6. To make meringue, beat egg whites until frothy. Gradually add sugar, continuing to beat until stiff peaks form. Add vanilla or other flavoring. Spoon onto pie, spreading to crust edge to seal filling in.
  7. Bake at 325° for 15 to 18 minutes, until nicely browned. Refrigerate for 1 to 2 hours before serving.

“WHIS-key” – The Road to Ruin – A Haskell Memory from Long Ago

A few weeks ago, I wrote about visiting the National Ranching Heritage Center in Lubbock (see Stepping Into the Past). Seeing all those old buildings and other artifacts made me start thinking about the old frontier days here in Haskell. The first generation of settlers into this part of Texas certainly had more than their share of interesting events and occurrences – and none were more unique than the story of Haskell’s first saloon.

According to R.E. Sherrill’s book, Haskell County History, two early-day Haskell businessmen, a Mr. Draper and his partner, Mr. Baldwin, sometime around 1886 or 1887, discovered that a license they already had to sell whiskey wholesale also permitted them to sell it at retail. A large, two-story building was erected on the eastern end of the south side of the square; long-time Haskell residents will remember that as the location of the Haskell Free Press for many years. The original name of the establishment was the “QT Saloon.” “QT” was an old slang term for “quiet;” to keep something on the “QT” meant to keep it quiet, private, secret. These days, people might say “keep it on the down-low.”

If running a “quiet” saloon had been the owners’ original intention, the reality did not match up. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Not long after the building was built, a new preacher came to town, looking for a place to hold services. It was not unusual in those days for a minister to preach in places other than church buildings. The saloon was stocked with inventory but had not yet opened. Mr. Draper told the preacher that he was welcome to hold services at the saloon, which he apparently did before moving on to the next town.

Messrs. Draper and Baldwin continued running the QT, and one day, a one-legged sign painter showed up, looking for work. The owners apparently felt sorry for the man and agreed to hire him to paint a new sign for the establishment. The sign painter sat down and began to sketch out some ideas for Mr. Draper, including one that looked something like this. Mr. Draper loved it, and reportedly said, “That’s the one. That suits me better than any of them. That’s the most honest saloon sign I ever saw. Put her up.” And so the “QT” became the “Road to Ruin,” with its distinctive “WHIS-key” sign.

This is an approximation of the sign that hung outside the old Haskell saloon, which was known as “The Road to Ruin.” The “Whis-Key” advertising was allegedly done by a one-legged sign painter.

There were four murders in Haskell over the next fourteen years. Three of those killings were inside the saloon; the fourth was next door. The first occurred on Saturday, October 3, 1887. George Scarborough, sheriff of Jones County, was in the saloon, writing a letter to his wife. Another customer, A.J. Williams, who had been drinking in the saloon, attacked Sheriff Scarborough for reasons unknown; the sheriff shot and killed him. A few days later, October 17, W.M. Carter accused owner J.L. Baldwin of being unfair to the late Mr. Williams; guns were drawn, and Mr. Carter was killed. Both killings were determined to be self-defense, and Scarborough and Baldwin were cleared of all charges.

The next shooting was on May 27, 1890, when George Mason and a Mr. Marshall began having an argument about a recent horse race. Two other customers became involved, and one of those men was shot and killed, with that shooter also cleared for self-defense. The fourth killing happened next door to the saloon, in a livery stable that used to be where the county extension office is now. Saloon co-owner J.L. Baldwin also owned the livery stable, and he had a running feud with another livery owner, W.L. Yoe. On May 13, 1899, Mr. Yoe came to Mr. Baldwin’s stable to continue their disagreement; he attempted to draw his pistol, but it got hung up in his clothing. Mr. Baldwin drew his weapon cleanly and fired, killing Mr. Yoe.

Local history is not clear as to when the saloon closed; it may have been when national Prohibition went into effect around 1920. But many area residents were no doubt glad to see it shut down; an old poem from that time known as “Called a Bar” summed up the feelings of many:

— A Bar to joys that home imparts
A door to tears and aching hearts;

— A Bar to heaven, a door to hell
Whoever named it, named it well!

Skull Rock and the Garden Tomb

When I was a kid, a name like “Skull Rock” sounded spooky, a little creepy, very adventurous.

It was the sort of place where Peter Pan and the boys from Never, Never Land would hang out. It was a fun place to visit at Six Flags over Texas when I was younger, with its slightly scary green lighting and its fun, twisty slide to play on.

It never occurred to me that there might have been a real Skull Rock. And that it would be anything but fun to visit. At least, it never occurred to me, until I actually went there.

I have written before about my trip to Israel that I made a few years ago. During that trip, I learned that there are actually two different sites identified as the possible location where Jesus was crucified. Although they are both within the main environs of Jerusalem now, both would have been outside the city walls back in Jesus’ day. Both have elements to recommend them as the “real” location, and both have shallow caves nearby, where Jesus could have been buried, in keeping with the story as told in the Gospels.

One, of course, is the site contained within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This is the historically accepted spot, with visitors going back at least to the 300s. It’s there we find the oldest traditions about the rocky hill on which Jesus was crucified and the nearby, borrowed, tomb of Joseph of Arimathea where He was buried. The final few stations along the famous “Via Dolorosa” – the Way of Suffering – are located there.

But over the years, the old location has been gilded over and gold plated. It’s had shrines erected over and beside it, so much so that only with the greatest stretch of imagination can you picture in your mind what it must have been like 2,000 years ago, when Jesus was actually there. Metal shields have actually been installed in some parts, to prevent souvenir hunters from chipping off a chunk of rock to take home with them. The candles, the incense, the fabric draperies – it all seems more fake, more “Hollywood,” and less like a location where public executions took place.

At least, that’s the reaction that a lot of American visitors, especially Protestants, have. And so, while that location definitely has the better historical claim to being the actual site of the crucifixion, there is another spot that is more preferred by a lot of Christians who want to see the spot where Jesus died, was buried, and three days later, rose again.

Gordon’s Calvary is about a third of mile away. Charles Gordon was a British General and amateur archeologist who helped popularized the location, and so his name is associated with it. One of the things that is so special about it is a limestone cliff, jutting up from the ground. Two deep depressions in the side of the cliff remind visitors of a skull’s empty eye sockets – and so the cliff is known, unofficially, as “Skull Rock.” If this was the execution spot, it would have been an appropriate name – both for its appearance, and for the painful events that took place there.

So imagine, if you will, that you are a visitor to Jerusalem in those days, coming in from Jericho. As you enter the city, near the main gates, you see a large cliff, and there, in front of that cliff (and not on top of it), you see a number of crosses there, with the prisoners being executed. And a few dozen yards away, a number of shallow caves in the side of the cliff have been hollowed out to serve as graves.

This is the Garden Tomb. And those caves are empty.

Was this where Jesus was crucified? Honestly, we don’t know. As I said, both the tradition Golgotha and Gordon’s Calvary have their advocates. But wherever it was, I invite you to join with me this weekend as we remember those events. Let us give thanks that the tomb is empty!