The Columbus Free Press


Part 40

Fourth Cook on a Railroad Diner

by Thomas C. Fleming, Jun 24, 1998

The growth of the American railway system during the last days of the 19th century saw an ever-growing number of black men, and some black women, among the hundreds of thousands who worked for the railroads.

In the South, they not only served in the stewards department, but laid track and worked as locomotive engineers, firemen, brakemen and conductors. This ended when the Big Four train unions, which represented these four professions, became established on virtually all American railroads in the early 20th century and excluded blacks from membership.

After that, blacks were confined to being porters, dining car crew, maintenance workers in the railroad yards and redcap porters who worked the terminals in most towns in America. The baggage handlers were called redcaps because of their distinctive head gear, which was usually a cap with a red top.

The Pullman Company, which operated the Pullman sleeping cars, hired the porters, maids and barbers for their cars, plus the attendants who worked in the club cars and the observation cars, which were found on all of the fast luxury trains. The observation cars, located on the rear of the train, had an outside platform with chairs for anyone who wished to have an outside-the-car look at the country as the train sped on toward its destination.

When I was hired by the Southern Pacific Railroad in Oakland, California in 1927, diesel trains were still in the future, and the old reliable steam hog was still the pride of the rail lines. The diesels did not completely replace the steam locomotives until the 1950s.

As the fourth cook on a dining car, I was primarily the dishwasher, but I had to peel potatoes, clean vegetables, and help with whatever the chef or second cook asked me to do. They'd put you on the frying pan sometimes; they were supposed to be teaching you how to become a cook. Then you got promoted to third cook, second cook, and eventually chef.

When I entered the dining car for the first time, the chef gave me a white jacket, checkered trousers and white cap that cooks wear. Then he sent me to the commissary with a waiter to get supplies for the diner.

As I walked through the railroad yard in West Oakland, I saw the sleeping cars, chair cars, diners, club cars, observation cars and baggage cars being prepared for departure.

There were hundreds of men and women maintenance workers, primarily black, swarming all over and inside the cars, getting them ready for their next trip to distant cities. Some were hosing the cars down or cleaning them with long-handle brushes. Others were examining the wheels and pouring oil inside the wheel boxes.

Some were icing the car up, by placing ice in containers at the top of the cars. Others were bringing in coal, which they put in the bunkers in the kitchens. Others were sweeping the cars inside, using vacuum cleaners to pick up dust on the felt-covered seats, or bringing linen to the Pullman sleeping cars. It was all very new and exciting to me.

The commissary was like a combination warehouse and kitchen, which supplied all the dining cars leaving Oakland and San Francisco. We loaded the food into a big two-wheel hand truck. The food on trains was much better and more plentiful, and with more variety of menus than you have now. The Southern Pacific had everything the public would get in luxury hotels -- fresh green vegetables, milk in 10-gallon cans, cases of eggs, three kinds of fish, shrimp, and sometimes oysters and lobsters.

The Southern Pacific prepared everything in advance. It packaged a special flour mix for biscuits and shortcake, and another one for hotcakes. All you had to do was add some milk and stir it together. For bran muffins, they would grind up black figs and put it all through the mixture. They gave us a lot of pie dough at the commissary, but we had to know how to make it ourselves in case we ran out.

The beef was in huge slabs; the chef would cut out the different steaks and prime ribs. They had pork chops, lamb chops, filet mignon and chateaubriand. The meat for hamburger was ground up with a hand operated meat grinder. When chickens were boiled for chicken salad or chicken fricassee, the stock was placed in gallon cans and saved for making sauces and gravy.

Chef Melvin Pierson (ctr.), Cannis Elie (l.) and Oliver Medlock
prepare for rush of patrons as the "Daylight" prepares
to pull out of San Francisco for Los Angeles. (1945)
The kitchen had a big charcoal broiler and a coal-burning range, with a coal bin between them. There was a dishwashing machine with an electric motor.

The chef took me over to a large grindstone in the railroad yard and began to teach me how to sharpen the knives. Most cooks had their own personal kitchen knives and huge forks. They were very professional, and were capable of working in any fine restaurant in the country. But most fine restaurants wouldn't hire black chefs.

I soon learned that the well-heeled passengers did not attempt to learn the names of the porters or waiters while traveling. They apparently assumed that all of the porters bore the name George, after George Pullman, the manufacturer of the sleeping car. All porters and waiters were addressed simply as "George." This senseless name-providing by white travelers seemed to rile some black employees, especially the chefs.

Most chefs mocked the waiters and porters by calling them "George" in the most disdainful manner. Some waiters resisted this and engaged in short debates with anyone from the kitchenside who called them "George." The chef on my first trip took pride in the fact that he did not have to depend on tips from the traveling public to earn a living.

Copyright © 1998 by Thomas Fleming. Email.
At 90, Fleming continues to write each week for the Sun-Reporter, San Francisco's African American weekly, which he co-founded in 1944. A 48-page book of his stories and photos from 1907-19 is available for $3, including postage, and a 90-minute cassette tape of his recollections of black life in Florida, Harlem and Chico from 1912-1926 is available for $5, including postage. Send mailing address or call 415-771-6279.

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