Meals on Wheels — or, Eating Really Well on a 2,800-mile Journey from Toronto to Vancouver
There are certainly faster ways to get from Toronto to Vancouver — but undoubtedly few tastier ways than taking Via Rail’s The Canadian, a train that brings you from east to west, ever so leisurely, in four days. I took the trip with my son in the fall of 2011. We had purchased a sleeper package in which all the gourmet meals were included, so we looked forward to a unique gastronomical and sightseeing experience.
The trip certainly did not disappoint in either respect. Certainly, on the gastronomical front, the meals did not disappoint. They were invariably good, with some dishes (like the roast beef) standing out in particular. The table settings were elegant, and there is something to be said about having your meal by a train car window while stunning scenery whizzes by. There was only one occasion to have a real meal off the train, and this was when we made a several-hour stop in Jasper, Alberta. We found a homey place, the Patricia Street Deli, that served freshly-made sandwiches — a refreshing change from the rich food we’d been having on board the train.
On the train, we did run into an unexpected twist at our very first meal: Because of limited seating in the dining car, all meals would be taken opposite complete strangers sharing the same table. Having a table to yourself and your companion was completely out of the question. This turned the meals into social events in which you a) shyly tucked into your food while averting the eyes of the people opposite you or b) made a real attempt to enhance the meal by enjoying it together with the erstwhile strangers.
Taking option b) certainly opened up a new dimension. Before each breakfast, lunch, or dinner, we thought not just “Wonder what we’re having today” but also “Wonder what kind of people we’ll meet today”. So, while savoring our hot roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, or grilled arctic char, or rack of lamb, we made the acquaintance of people as varied as the food we were being served.
We met a mother and son from Syracuse, NY, a retired art gallery owner from Toronto, an Australian couple visiting friends they had made while assigned as teachers in Ontario many years ago, a young couple from Nashville, Texas, and a Russian girl from some obscure town near the North Pole.
In at least one case, we met people whose adventures would definitely be greater than the one we were all on. Towards the tail end of our journey, we met a young Indian couple who had lived in Toronto for some years but decided that the big city was not for them. So they up and packed up for Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where they had no family, no firm job prospects, and no knowledge, even, of where they would be staying the night they arrived in the city!
The social interaction over meals did have one negative impact: I could hardly take keep taking pictures of food in polite company! So, as much as the gastronomical experience on board The Canadian was worth writing about, I finished the trip without much photographic evidence of the well-prepared meals I had enjoyed. Fortunately, I do have a few visual mementos of those great meals, but for the most part, they will have to remain trapped forever in the memory of my taste buds.