A National Cuisine
In May 1869, just two weeks after the final spike was hammered into the last tie of the transcontinental railway, New York Herald correspondent Albert Richardson was riding west when he had an unexpected encounter with Charley Crocker, a cofounder of the Sacramento-based Central Pacific Railroad, who was heading eastbound via private rail coach. While their trains idled in Omaha, Crocker "delighted us with blooming flowers, and feasted us upon strawberries, oranges, and luscious cherries from California, brought upon Alaska ice 1,800 miles through the green valleys of the Pacific slope," Richardson reported.
But what was exotic then became expected by the end of the century, says Bill Withuhn, curator of the history of technology and transportation at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. George Pullman introduced the first dining car--called the Delmonico after the New York restaurant--in 1868, an innovation that caught hold nationally over the next two decades, with gourmet meals, luxe place settings, and custom-designed china to match. The treats served to Richardson onboard became staples at home. "The transcontinental railroad was the underpinning of a change in the American diet," says Withuhn.
Shortcut. Before the railroad, the only way to transport anything from one coast to the other was the long way: three to four months to make the overland trip between New York and San Francisco; more than four months to circumnavigate the 13,300 miles around Cape Horn; and 35 days to travel 5,250 miles via Panama, requiring two boats and a trek across the Panama isthmus. Arduous even for the hardiest traveler, the rough ride was out of the question for a bushel of California apricots or a freshly butchered side of Oklahoma beef. By reducing the coast-to-coast trip to 10 to 12 days, the new rail routes not only linked isolated parts of the country but homogenized the nation's tastes, adding meat, wheat, and fresh fruit to lunch pails and dinner plates, says Withuhn--no matter the region or season.
The refrigerated car, patented in 1867, made it possible to make the long hauls. Insulated, with ice bunkers at both ends, the car allowed air in, which circulated over the ice, keeping fish, vegetables, and meat fresh. Cars designed for fruit were cooled with ice replenished along the way, allowing fragile strawberries to take to the tracks, though it took 100 pounds to cool 200 quarts of berries. All this meant a man in Boston could eat Wisconsin cheese with a rib-eye from Texas, a potato from Idaho, and an orange from California--though it would be a long while before he could do all that in front of a TV.
This story appears in the August 15, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.