Banquet on wheels
Our local hebdomadal newspaper has a fairish recipe page, but catering to tidal interests, it runs to hake fritters, codfish balls, and baked haddock. It was accordingly a surprise to find the directions for a Kaiserschmarrn in a recent issue. This is pretty far afield, but I do know of one Kaiserschmarrnm that was even more afield than that. Kaiserschmarrnm is translated sometimes as emperor's pancake, and Austria and Bavaria dispute over its origin. Suffice that for some time it has been a traditional dessert aboard the little red Speisewagenm of the German Federal Railway. Following a considerable formula, the cook makes a pancake which is then torn apart with two forks and served with a sweet sauce or jelly. Like anything else in a cookbook, it varies, and every variation is right.
A meal in a German dining car is a genteel and pleasant experience no American railroad ever offered or approached. Those who have eaten aboard a German train will understand. And the serving of Kaiserschmarrnm gets full as much dash, splash, flash, pomp, and hoopla as the changing of the guard at a Buckingham. I came home from Germany with a happy memory of the redolence of vanilla, to bore my friends with my travelogue.
And it happened that a couple of years after that we made the rail trip up to Churchill, on Hudson Bay, in northern Manitoba. The train leaves Winnipeg, and after two sleeps arrives at the Canadian grain port. Surrounded by muskeg, tundra, Indians, Eskimos, and permafrost, Churchill is useful for only four weeks or so when the ice leaves Hudson Strait in the brevity of an arctic summer. There was then no highway to Churchill, and I believe there is none yet, so the train up from Winnipeg had sleepers, a diner, coaches, and work cars - a considerable consist hauled, then, by steam. So at suppertime out of Winnipeg we wended to the dining car to introduce ourselves to the steward, a handsome Jamaican with definite Caucasian features but a beautiful chocolate skin. His Oxford English was magnificent. Supper was delightful, and we visited with passengers at other tables, with remarks about places out the window from our steward. On our way back to our compartment we passed the dining-car kitchen, and believing nobody ever resents a kind word, I stuck my head in and complimented the cook on his performance, offering our thanks.
With a heavy German overlay he thanked me, and I made the unavoidable stupid remark, ''German?''
''Ja, how do you know?'' His grin meant he was joshing, and proved he was pleased and affable. His name was Richard Horn, he was Swabian, from Stuttgart, and he had been a cook in a Speisewagenm before he had been caught up in Hitler's plans. He had soon gone to Alabama as a POW, and after the war he had hoped to stay in the States. But he couldn't swing that, so he shifted to Canada, became a Canadian and a cook for the Canadian National Railways. As we parted, I said, ''Tomorrow for supper I'll expect a Kaiserschmarrnm.''
We slept and the train moved along. All day I wondered about supper, thinking betimes of that vanilla flavor of dessert. We went to the diner and took our places.
Our steward, who was also our waiter, began to bring us our food, and after a bit in chummy style he leaned over to confide, ''I've no notion what Cook is making, but he's got pots and pans all over the stove!''
''I know,'' I said. ''He's making us a Kaiserschmarrnm.''
''Is that so? You don't say!''
So there was a true German Kaiserschmarrnm that was very far afield indeed, and as our waiter had no idea of the manner of serving, Herr Horn came from his galley to do the honors, and do them right. Deftly he worked the forks, moved the pieces to the plates, and anointed. I was just about to say something about the aroma of vanilla, which was wanting, when he handled that himself.
''Sorry about the vanilla,'' he said. ''This train doesn't carry vanilla beans, and without vanilla sugar, where are you?'' We were, actually, just coming into The Pas, where a branch line takes off for Flin Flon, the town that never sleeps, but except for vanilla we might have been in the Swabian Alps, having left the Neckar and headed for Munich. Other diners were interested, and Cook Horn made Kaiserschmarrnm for all. We have not been that way since, but wonder if Kaiserschmarrnm is now traditional there. With vanilla.