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Thursday, 15 October 2015

Thankyou, Amtrak, for Enhancing My Appreciation of Proper Food – with your Frozen Omelette... and let’s hear it too for Dairy Queen, for another Culinary Abomination.

I have had worse. One day last year, for instance, I breakfasted on stale pancakes and dried egg. But there was a reason for that: I was in northern Norway, way up in the Arctic Circle, hiking from hut to hut with nary a fence, gate, highway or food store within a hundred miles. We had to carry eight days’ supplies on our backs. Even our emergency supper of canned sardines and couscous brought a satisfied ‘aah’ to my parched lips, a groan of something like satisfaction to my neglected belly. So, when it comes to plain fare and making the best of a bad job, I know what I’m talking about.

Yesterday, on the late-running Amtrak service between Chicago and Charleston, West Virginia, we walked down to the dining-car to get some breakfast. I’d already worked out what to do about breakfast – namely, stick to the oatmeal option. It’s really quite hard to get oatmeal wrong. A. had already tried the French toast on the Denver-Chicago leg. It came smothered with icing sugar. The patties I’d experienced years ago, and the memory – unlike the product itself -  remains fresh. Today, however, they were already out of oatmeal – despite it being as early as 0625h, Central. ‘Okay,’ I said, ‘I’ll try the three-egg omelette (I beg your pardon, omelet) with the croissant, fruit and yoghurt.’

Bear with me while I get the sundries out of the way. The fruit consisted of four strawberries, chilled to within an inch of their life – i.e., all but frozen. I managed one, which hurt my teeth. The croissant was in fact a Chelsea bun masquerading as its French cousin. No way was it the real thing, being way too solid and not at all the right shape. I nibbled, then abandoned it. Now it was time to man up and tackle the omelet(te).

My suspicions were first aroused by its shape, which formed a perfect semi-circle, far too regular to have been hand-made; and by its colour, which was altogether too uniform. Eggs, you’ll recall, are made of a white part and a yolk, and an omelet(te) is comprised of both – although not on Amtrak, where they contrive an undifferentiated cream colour. So this was clearly a convenience version. It was also solid, at least at the extremities; you might say rubbery. It did, however, contain a surprise: a centre that was cool and moist. No, make that water-logged. Water? In an omelette? I can only conclude that Amtrak’s catering division, having completed its grisly business with dried eggs, die-stamped the individual portions and froze them.

I mentioned Dairy Queen (above), and I’ll mention them again. Why should their sins go un-pardoned? We were in northern Arizona, making our way from the Canyon de Chelly to Tucson. We needed sustenance, and we needed wifi. On a whim, and having spotted a Dairy Queen, I suggested we pull in. ‘Pie and coffee,’ I said. ‘It’s a guaranteed reviver.’ And so it is. The trouble here was that ‘pie’ has been redefined by Dairy Queen. Yes, my pumpkin pie tasted of pumpkin; yes, it contained pastry. And there the resemblance ended. It came in a cup; it was pale brown; but it was enriched with about four and a half pounds of sugar, a quart or so of cream, and lumps of broken pastry so rich in sugar as to resemble candy. And, having first revealed that the joint’s wifi was down, I’ll tell you something else about it their re-invented pie. It made me look like a crazed psycho killer.


Thankfully, we are now in Charleston, where our hostess, an American, cooks proper food and plenty of it. Proper? Let me correct myself: it’s superb. There is hope for this country yet.