Cook of the Week: Rail museum volunteer restores dining car recipes
By Abby Scalf
Daily Herald Correspondent
Michael McCraren's passion is trains and their history that has been chugging along the nation's tracks for decades. As a volunteer at the Illinois Railway Museum in Union he works summer weekends as a conductor on steam and diesel engines offering rides along the one- and five-mile routes. In the colder months, he helps to restore the cars.
"Where else can you ride behind a steam locomotive from 1917 pulling passenger cars built in 1914? Where can you ride behind a stainless steel 1940 diesel locomotive pulling passengers cars from 1938? Where can you ride behind a 1953 diesel pulling a line of 1950 stainless steel passenger cars?" said Michael, of Mundelein. "I get to relate to our guests why this train is important, how it fits into American history and why it's not just another choo-choo train."
Michael knows the history of the rail travel in this country, but also the complexity of the train's dining cars. Each rail line featured artistic menus, China pieces that look like works of art and recipes featuring ingredients and products that reflected the states they traveled through.
One of those dining cars, the Birmingham, was built in 1950 for the Atlantic Coast Line. One night when volunteers had to work overnight, Michael offered to make breakfast the next morning and cooked in the Birmingham. The menu featured sausage and orange muffins that would be served on the Atlantic Coast Line route.
Michael said cooking in a dining car means limited space. "The dining car kitchen is long and narrow, so there is always someone behind you. It's very much like a restaurant kitchen," he said.
A few months later, 70 people attended a second breakfast on the Birmingham. The car was decorated for the occasion with tablecloths, menus and a carnation on each table, typical of the era. The menu included sausages, pancakes, Denver omelette with hash browns and French toast, which, Michael explained, was a dining car breakfast tradition. Following the Atlantic Coast Line menu, he also offered grits.
"We had to turn people away. There were people lined up waiting to get into the dining car," he said.
For a holiday party at the museum he recreated vintage railroad recipes. The potato salad was from an Atlantic Coast Line recipe, and coleslaw from the Missouri Pacific line. He featured salad with Frisco French and Illinois Central dressings, and the cocktail sauce was from the Louisville & Nashville railroad.
Michael explained the meals he has cooked were not open to the public, but that will change. Later this year, the museum plans to offer lunch in the Gault House dining car and Michael will assume the role of executive chef. Once dates and times are determined, they will be posted on the museum website, www.irm.org.
Michael doesn't limit his cooking to the tight quarters of a dining car. At home, Michael said he is inspired by his grandmother, who would prepare Italian specialties such as meatballs and ravioli. His sauce starts like hers did with tomatoes covered with basil, one of Michael's favorite ingredients, adding, "If they ever made a basil aftershave, I'd buy boxes of it." But he adds other influences, too.
"It's a little bit Mario Batali, a little bit my grandmother and a little bit my Uncle John," he said. "Mario is the carrots and onions, the tomato and basil are my grandmother and her brother-in-law, who lived to 95 always said a little bit of vino every day. So I add a little wine in honor of him."
• To suggest someone to be profiled here, send the cook's name, address and phone number to email@example.com.