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.

What’s Cooking?

Sometimes, if you stay open to trying new things, you’ll discover something about yourself that you never knew before.

Case in point: I’ve discovered that I love to cook.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I’ve always loved to grill. I think most guys do – there’s just something about an open fire, and being outside, and sizzling meat cooking on a hot steel grill that appeals to a lot of men. But I’m talking about more than that.

Several years ago, my family and I moved into a neighborhood ministry called “The Friendship House,” on Abilene’s north side near Hendrick Hospital. Part of my job was to host regular block parties and other get-togethers where we would eat and visit and get to know one another – and that meant I had to fix a main course, and the neighbors would bring the side dishes.

So I learned to cook. And in the process, I also learned how much I enjoy planning and preparing the meals, trying out new recipes, and experimenting with different ingredients and techniques. (I’ve also discovered that sometimes, even failures can still taste pretty good!)

Then a few years later, when I resigned from that job and moved back to Southeast Texas to be my elderly dad’s caregiver, I was able to fix his favorite meals and make his closing days a little more enjoyable. It was a real treat for me, to share those dinners with him.

Enjoying a meal with family and friends has a number of genuine benefits. For one thing, food creates community. I’ve seen it more than once – people arrive as strangers and leave as friends. There’s something about the act of eating a meal together that helps people tear down the walls they’ve built and get to know others in a way that few other activities can.

It should come as no surprise that, in the Bible, one of the most common images God uses to describe heaven is a fabulous feast. For example, in Isaiah 25:6, we read, “On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine — the best of meats and the finest of wines.” The prophet goes on to say that in that day, God will “swallow up death forever,” and He will wipe away every tear from our eyes.

And speaking of creating community: in Revelation 3:20, Jesus says, “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them, and they with me.”

Here’s another reason I enjoy it: cooking links generations together. My mom has been gone for over ten years, but when I drag out one of her recipes, in her own handwriting, and make that special item, it’s like she is right there with me. And when my kids eat it, they know that at some level, it’s with love from Maw-Maw. The same with that Roast Venison recipe from Grandpa Garison, or Aunt Bib’s Christmas Divinity. We tell the family stories about those loved ones, and it’s like they are with us again, in a very special way.

I have an Hispanic friend who told me about growing up in a home where they always fixed tamales for Christmas, and how multiple generations would be working together in the kitchen. Everyone had a specific job to do, she said, and one of the ways you knew you were getting older was that you were given a more important job to do in helping make the tamales. And as she talked about working with her beloved “Abuela” (grandmother) and her precious “Tía” (aunt), both long since deceased, it was obvious that this was more than just something good to eat.

My wife and I were talking the other day about what a significant part food has played in so many of our family gatherings. Everyone has a favorite dish, and so as we fix that item, a little extra love goes into it while we think about that family member. Sharing together in a good meal makes for very special memories that can span generations, and even lifetimes.

One final blessing: food connects us with our Creator. When we are cooking a meal from scratch, we know that there is more to it than just opening a can or removing the plastic and sticking something in the microwave. When we have handled those raw veggies, just the way they came from a green plant – whether we picked them out at the grocery store, or the farmer’s market, or our own garden – when we have peeled it and put love and time into preparing it, then we are reminded of God’s gracious bounty. When we have cut and cooked that meat, or scrambled those eggs, or whatever we’re doing, it’s an opportunity to be connected more closely with the “Giver of every good and perfect gift.” It’s also a good time to be thankful to the farmers, the ranchers, the grocers and others who were God’s partners in helping to grow and provide that food for us.

The holidays are coming, and even in this season of a terrible pandemic, even when we can’t be together, we can still be thankful for the blessings of food, family and friends.