Happy November! November is synonymous with football and hearty foods. For this month’s Dining on the Rails, we decided to feature au gratin potatoes as well as discuss some of the history behind railroads and the popular fall sport, football!

Before we take a look at the interesting history for all of the sports fans out there, let’s talk about the history of the dish. Introduced as an indulgent dish, we first see mention of it in 1788 in France as gratin dauphinoise. Based out of the Dauphiné region of France, it became a popular French dish. Its origins in America are less clear, although Betty Crocker did a lot to popularize the dish in the United States with the addition of it to her cookbook in the 1950s.

Figure 1 Portrait of Betty Crocker, 1936.

Football has a long and rich history in America. Based on a combination of soccer and rugby, the first football game was played between Princeton and Rutgers, on November 6, 1869. With that rich history, it’s no surprise that the sport and railroads intersected.

Figure 2 William Boyd painting of the Rutgers-Princeton game of 1869.

One of the ways both football players and football fans traveled to games was by rail. Football train specials were organized from the beginning to the middle of the 19th century for this purpose. The levels of amenities available on these trains varied. The trains might feature shorter day trips with the potential for a snack car, or they could be fully equipped with dining cars. In 1923 the Boulder Daily Camera newspaper reported on a special train for CU Boulder’s football team. According to the article, it consisted of “a standard Pullman for the football team, two tourist Pullmans for the band and students, an observation and club car, a diner and a baggage car for the water and football suits.”

These special trains weren’t just used for college football. Golden High School brought a “Football Special” to Golden in 1959 (the year the Colorado Railroad Museum opened in Golden!) for the school’s game in Trinidad. Passengers included the band, pep club, and other fans (See figure 3). Their food offerings included a boxed lunch, priced at $1, and they suggested packing a sack lunch for an additional meal.

Figure 3 Colorado Transcript article featuring the “Football Special” train to Trinidad, 1959.

Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado offered a special train sponsored by Blue Key, which was an honorary pep society on campus. That 1953 train originated on Colorado & Southern rails and traveled to Colorado Springs. The consist featured a snack car and a lounge car, with the potential for more lounge cars depending on the demand, and free beer provided by Blue Key.

In the Museum’s collection, we have many menus from various railroads. Some of the menus are from the special trains for football games. The collection includes a menu from Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy (CB&Q) special train that traveled to not only a college football game, but also a National Football League game between the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers in 1948 (see figure 4). Another CB&Q menu in the collection showcases the Cornhusker Tour which went from Omaha and Lincoln to Denver—Boulder, also in 1948 (figure 5). One of the other CB&Q menus in CRRM’s collection is for the University of Illinois’ Football Band, which includes a roster of the band’s members (figure 6 and 7).

Figure 4 CB&Q Special Menu featuring Au Gratin Potatoes, 1948.


Figure 5 CB&Q Special Menu, 1948.


Figure 6 CB&Q University of Illinois Football Band Special Menu cover, 1948.


Figure 7 Contents of University of Illinois Football Band menu, 1948.

We hope you enjoyed our brief history of potatoes au gratin and the connection between the railroad and football! Our recipes today comes from Union Pacific’s Dining Car Cook Book and Service Instructions. If you try the recipe, let us know in the comments or on our social media channels!

Au Gratin Potatoes
Dice cold boiled potato and a small amount of American cheese very fine. Place in a buttered aluminum cut meat pan and add sufficient amount of rich cream sauce to cover thoroughly. Dust the top generously with cracker crumbs and small diced or grated American cheese, paprika, dot with butter and brown in a hot oven. 1 tablespoon of grated cheese, per serving may be blended into cream sauce and omitted from top.

Cream Sauce
Use ½ cup of butter, ½ cup of flour for roux. Cook for five minutes. Stir in one gallon of boiling hot milk, stirring continually with egg whip to keep sauce free from any lumps. Have the consistency of rich cream and strain through Chinese strainer. Never make this sauce with corn starch. Season to taste with salt and white pepper.

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