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March 2, 2009 at 9:24 AM

Recipe redux: French Toast a la Santa Fe — and other dining-car memories

“It’s been 65 years since Troy Walker got hired as a dining-car waiter on the Santa Fe Railway, but he readily recalls a few things he loved about the job: the steady, clean work; the excitement of seeing new places, meeting new people — and the French toast the railroad cooks made for breakfast.”

So wrote my pal Jack Broom last month — after interviewing Walker for a Seattle Times story honoring railroad porters. “That was one of their specialties,” Walker, 90, who lives in the Rainier Beach area, told Jack. “They’d start it the night before. I’m not sure how they made it, but it was very good.”

Jack and I would like to extend our fond thanks to astute reader Scott Handley, who made it possible for Mr. Walker — and the rest of us — to enjoy that specialty at home. Handley wrote to say that “French Toast a la Santa Fe” appears in the book “Dining by Rail: The History and Recipes of America’s Golden Age of Railroad Cuisine” by James D. Porterfield.

Porterfield (who clearly has the right name for the job) wrote: “This special and renowned recipe, perhaps the best French toast of them all, was perfected by Fred Harvey chefs in 1918 for the Santa Fe Railway’s dining cars. It produces a puffy, golden brown delicacy. The Santa Fe Railway dining-car service, at its peak, produced nearly 1 million breakfasts a year. This item perennially topped the `most popular’ list.” Here’s the recipe:

French Toast a la Santa Fe

You’ll need: small mixing bowl, whisk, 12-inch cast iron skillet, paper towels, baking sheet

Preheat oven to 400 degrees

Preparation time: 20 minutes

Yield: 2 servings

2 slices white bread, cut 3/4-inch thick

1/2 cup light cream

2 eggs

pinch, salt (optional)

1/2 cup cooking oil

Place cooking oil in skillet, heat to hot. Meanwhile, cut each bread slice diagonally to form four triangles, and set aside. In a small bowl, combine eggs, cream and salt and beat well. Soak bread thoroughly in egg/cream mixture. Fry soaked bread in hot oil to a golden brown on both sides, about 2 minutes per side. Lift from skillet to clean paper towel and allow to absorb excess cooking oil. Transfer to baking sheet and place in oven. Bake 4-6 minutes, until bread slices have puffed up. Serve sprinkled with powdered sugar and cinnamon and apple sauce, currant jelly, maple syrup, honey or preserves, and bacon, ham, or sausage if desired.

So, does anyone else have any riding-the-rails dining stories they’d like to share? Here’s mine:

When Nate was four, he and I took the Amtrak Cascades to Vancouver, B.C. to attend a friend’s wedding. Shortly after we got aboard at the Edmonds station, Nate began making goo-goo eyes at a sweet young lady from Ireland, and struck up a conversation. Later, when I made reservations for a semi-formal meal in the dining car, we treated our “new friend” to dinner. I shared my stories of waiting tables in Cape May, N.J. many years earlier — with a crew of fun-loving Irish kids who — like her — had come to the U.S. to work the summer season. And she regaled me and her “new boyfriend” with tales of her impressions of our country ’tis of thee.

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