In several of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, trains figure prominently. They can play menacing roles, such as in The Thirty-nine Steps (1935) or Shadow of a Doubt (1943), but in two in particular, Strangers on a Train (1951) and North by Northwest (1959), significant scenes occur in a train’s dining car. David Lehman, writing in the April/May, 2007, issue of American Heritage, observed that “Hitchcock’s America is vast and dwarfs the individual man.” In Hitchcock’s day, America’s vast distances were best covered by train, and within a train, Hitchcock’s art flourished in the potential claustrophobia nestled within a Grand Hotel elegance of fine dining.
Sadly, the days of railroads offering passengers five-star cuisine are long gone. What remains from that bygone era are the recipes used by various railroads. In 1993 James D. Porterfield published 325 of them in his invaluable Dining by Rail. Preserved for posterity are recipes for entrees, salads, main courses, and desserts from forty-four American railroads. For someone modeling a small town in south-central Pennsylvania around 1900, Porterfield’s recipes selected from the Pennsylvania Railroad especially catch the eye and intrigue the palate. What is most striking about those recipes, given the Pennsylvania Railroad’s reputation as an extension of old Philadelphia WASP society, is that most of them call for paprika.
Faced with a problem on a layout, a model railroader needs to take a break and think it over. What for Sherlock Holmes was “a three pipe problem,” requires a non-smoker to find another diversion. Dinner on the Broadway Limited, for example, is no longer an option.
Ideal for a break from paint and glue, from mechanical pencils and a stainless steel scale rule, are the Pennsylvania Railroad’s ginger muffins. As found in Porterfield’s compilation, the recipe makes fifteen muffins, and it uses not only ginger, but also cinnamon and dark molasses. Plain or with some orange marmalade and a cup of coffee or tea, they are great for mulling over a problem from one’s layout.
A recurring problem for any serious model railroader is achieving an acceptable degree of verisimilitude. Discontent can come when one’s efforts fall short of one’s ideal of creating the illusion of reality. A hobby with an aging demographic, model railroading is a variation on what J. R. R. Tolkien called “sub-creation.” A model railroader takes elements of the created world and turns them into a subsidiary creation, coherent in itself. An absorbing and contemplative pastime, authenticity in miniature is often his (most model railroaders being men) passion.
At the heart of this mystery is a boyhood longing for entering and exploring other worlds. It is a longing that stays with most men, and it draws boys of all ages into Tolkien’s Middle Earth, or into the less enchanted, more prosaic, Mid-Atlantic town of Bayport, home of the Hardy Boys, unusually mature teenagers as intrepid and wholesome as fellowshipping hobbits.
In The Secret of the Old Mill (1927), the third novel in the series chronicling the adventures of Joe and Frank Hardy, there occurs one of the most clear-eyed understandings of the role railroads played in American culture a century or more ago, and this succinct insight also tells us something about why scale models of steam locomotives and the towns they served cause middle-aged hobbyists to get so engrossed that they even delve into railroad recipes from three generations ago.
What is more, this railway enthusiasm has been a North American cultural phenomenon. Those early tales of the Hardy Boys rolled out of the typewriter of Leslie McFarlane (1902-1977), a Canadian journalist who wrote for a newspaper in Massachusetts, The Springfield Republican, before hiring on with the Stratemeyer Syndicate that created the series and stipulated in its contract with McFarlane that he would write the stories under the pen name of Franklin W. Dixon.
“Like most boys,” Dixon/McFarlane as our narrator explains, the Hardy Boys “had a weakness for trains. There was a fascination about the great locomotives that held them spellbound, and they liked nothing better than to watch the trains that passed through Bayport and to speculate on the towns and cities they had come from or were bound for. At times when school became exceptionally distasteful, they had often gone down to the railway station and wished they could board the first train that came by, to travel on to strange countries. Somehow, they had never been so daring as to do this, common sense invariably coming to the rescue, but the lure of locomotives and shining rails still held them in its grasp.”
Whereas the Hardy Boys, and probably Dixon/McFarlane as well, daydreamed about the sort of trans-American rail travel later described in Paul Theroux’s curmudgeonly The Old Patagonian Express (1979), a model railroader has a fantasy about traveling into his sub-creation. He wants to buy a ticket at the bay-windowed station, board the train, dine on muffins and more, and otherwise find himself smelling the same coal smoke that transported his ancestors to and from small towns of shade trees and brick streets, wide lawns and deep porches.
Like a modeler’s layout, a train is a self-contained entity. As with dinner with strangers, it could lead to tedium or the suspense of film noir. In The American Scene (1905), Henry James waxed rhapsodic about the Pennsylvania Railroad. He wrote that his frequent trips on it were “a beguiling and predisposing influence,” and he found it had “a style and allure of its own,” so that it seemed to be “supplying one with a mode of life intrinsically superior.” Clearly, James’ travels by rail held no Hitchcockian perils, and glimpses of what made James content come from Porterfield’s cookbook.
There remains an element, to use James’ word, of beguiling continuity in the thought that the same recipes that aided Henry James writing classic prose can also help a model railroader solving puzzles posed by his hobby. For James, an ideal day on the Pennsylvania Railroad would be to have the dining and parlor cars to himself and steam along as though afloat in a hot-air balloon. Second best for him was a day at his club in Philadelphia, where he found the “secret of serenity” unrivalled elsewhere. Within the extended club of model railroaders, hours drift by as if aloft in a balloon or alone in a dining car, and there abides secular serenity rarely found anywhere else.