Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Eating on Amtrak

I love taking the train, especially for the reason most people hate it: it takes a long time. Last fall I took the train from Oregon to Boston, and back again. The trip took three days each way. Six whole days to sit and read books, looking up now and again to gaze out the window at the passing landscape. And six days to be relatively incommunicado.

But like most people, I don't like the food. I always think I'll have one meal in the dining car--how pleasant it would be to sit at the tables, sharing a meal with new people. But I never do--it's just too expensive for what it is.

This wasn't always the case. I was a young teenager the first time I took the train. I was traveling with my cousin, and we explored the train thoroughly, even falling into the kitchen (the door latch was loose) one morning. There were 3 or 4 cooks, working the stoves surrounded by a wall of shiny cupboards and refrigerator doors. The only place I've seen since that's remotely similar is the Camelia Grill in New Orleans. Same metal locker-like cupboards, same competent cooks hard at work, same basic good food.

Since the romance of train travel doesn't quite extend to mealtime, I've devised my own ways around the problem. Last fall it required a fairly intricate system, including a delicious mid-journey dinner at Chicago's Frontera Grill. For this trip, it was easier. After all, as long as you're not too delayed (only 3 hours this time!), you only need one dinner and one breakfast.

The train leaves Portland at 2:30 in the afternoon, and arrives in Emeryville (theoretically) at 8 in the morning. I like to start my trip with a lunch out in Portland. The train station in Portland is within walking distance of a number of good options. This time we went to Clyde Common, for a big salad of chicories and endive with a poached egg on top. But before lunch, we did our bakery runs.

It amuses me that I have to go to two bakeries to prepare. At Ken's we got our supper: two buttered baguette sandwiches with ham and asiago. With some carrots from the farmers market it was a near perfect meal. At Pearl Bakery I got some gibassiers (another member of my Portland Food List--one of these days there will be a page for them) for breakfast. We also got a fig cookie (cucidata-another food list member) and a cinnamon shortbread for dessert.


Of course you also need to prepare a bit ahead. I always pack a bag of almonds (you can live off those for days!), some dried fruit (prunes this time), carrots, tangerines, a couple bananas, and a couple chocolate bars (Theo's cherry and almond and Chocolove's ginger bar).

My return trip was pretty similar. Because my parents live outside Healdsburg and my sister-in-law lives a block from the Ferry Building in San Francisco, it's just as easy to gather food as it is in Portland.

At the Downtown Bakery in Healdsburg I picked up some assorted cookies (for afternoon tea) and hot cross buns for breakfast. In the Ferry Building I stopped at Boccalone Salumeria, Frog Hollow Farm and Acme Bread--for soppressata, mortadella, dried nectarines, bread, and a couple spare hot-cross buns. You never know when one will come in handy.

One final bit of prep. I always tuck a couple cloth napkins into my food bag. My parents taught me this trick, not that it's the kind that is hard to figure out. They also brought these cheery red napkins to me from the Netherlands. Travel with a cloth napkin--it's neater, and makes a snack on the train feel more like a meal.

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