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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Memorable meals: aboard Amtrak 370, the Pere Marquette

By Chris Siciliano

At precisely 5:20pm on a Tuesday afternoon, Amtrack 370, the Pere Marquette, with service from Chicago to Grand Rapids, pulled away from Union Station. An hour later, as we rolled past the rusted-out, starkly beautiful landscape near Gary, Indiana, Gena and I unpacked the various foodstuffs collected that afternoon in downtown Chicago. The meal, arranged haphazardly on the fold-down trays in front of us, included these tasty tidbits:

  • A small container of Tuscan bean salad in pesto dressing and a good chunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano, both purchased at the small Italian eatery across from our hotel.
  • A generous wedge of rustic bread, which the counter lady at a Belgian bakery sliced from what had been, earlier in the day, an enormous 4- or 5-lb loaf. By the time I got there, only a quarter of the loaf remained, and I took half of that.
  • An olive medley from a gourmet shop in Old Town. This place had bread for sale as well -- good-looking baguettes with excellent caramel color -- but I resisted the bread here in order to visit as many different food shops as possible.
(Included on this list should have been two cans of Wisconsin-brewed Simpler Times Pilsner, which, for the money, is a surprisingly fresh and flavorful beer. In my haste to check out on time, however, I left them in our hotel room's mini fridge. Hopefully the maid enjoyed the beer just as much as we would have.)

If it seems a simple meal, that's because it was, made memorable for precisely that reason: simplicity. Ripping chunks from the crusty bread to use in lieu of silverware; popping olives one by one into our mouths, not knowing exactly where to put the pits; breaking chunks from the hard, crystalline cheese with our fingers -- it doesn't get more basic. Nor does it get much better. I'd be lying to say the train itself did not add tremendously to the experience.

Why is it this relatively short ride from Chi-town to hometown filled me with such nostalgia? Considering how few times I've traveled by train in my life, and how long ago (ten years or more), you'd think the experience for me would be a novel one. Instead the ride felt oddly familiar and even comforting, as if the trip is one I often make, which, of course, is not the case at all. 

When my grandmother was a girl, she and her sisters and their father went to Detroit each year to watch the Tigers play. When they went, they went by train. She tells the story sometimes and I think my train-related deja vu exists as a direct result of it (her story) and others like it. Much has changed since my grandmother's day, and though the rate of change only accelerates, there remain certain important touchstones between then and now, the train being one of them. Unhurried yet unrelenting, it plods across the land with the same insistent, steady rhythm that it plods across both time and our imaginations.

A welcome answer to the frenetic pace of life today, traveling by train not only connects us to the past, it allows us to slow down and enjoy the simplest of things, a meal of good bread, cheese and olives most of all.

View from the train: pickle vats, Bangor, MI

Goose Island, Honker's ale, Chi-town's own

Our first stop

Don't care who you are, that's impressive

City at night

Chris Siciliano is a writer, teacher, and managing editor of the Buzz. He lives in Grand Rapids, MI, the last stop for the Pere Marquette departing from Chicago. All photos courtesy of Gena Max.

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