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.

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