Speeding to New Orleans

When rail travel’s most vibrant days still were yet to be, passengers aboard Illinois Central’s overnight service from Chicago to New Orleans savored fine dining before a contented drowsiness bid them to their cabins.  The evening got underway with a menu offering a variety of beguiling choices, including today’s entry, Shrimp Creole.  Indeed, the dish became the line’s signature culinary creation.

This meal, among dozens of others, is detailed in James Porterfield’s Dining By Rail, a wonderful celebration of mobile cuisine.  Shrimp Creole is a vibrant realization of the shellfish’s potential, made all more entrancing as the world rushes by the windows in a blur, the train gliding ever southward.

The preparation puts one in mind of the Crescent City’s enchanting warmth.  Succulent, slightly briny prawns are vital, of course, but so are tomatoes, offering a tangy enhancement of  the shrimp’s sweetness.  Louisiana’s “holy trinity” of peppers, onions and celery add unmistakable herbal notes and give the sauce a Creole pulse.  Mushrooms supply a certain richness, while a dash – or more – of cayenne pepper foretells the spicy heat ahead.

Though Shrimp Creole was served for decades aboard Illinois Central’s dining cars, its listing in a 1936 menu was a bit elaborate, appearing as, “Fresh Gulf Coast Shrimps a la Creole.”  The description was, perhaps, somewhat extravagant, but the price wasn’t.  In the Thirties it was 45 cents.  Less than half a dollar.  Seriously!

Such prices were genuine bargains, even eighty years ago.  They were “loss leaders” for the railroads, which, along with the exquisite cuisine passengers could expect, enticed travelers.  For many decades, it worked brilliantly.  Particularly when dinner provided a tantalizing taste of the delights that awaited the next day, after the world flew past.


Shrimp Creole

For the shrimp:

  • 2 pounds jumbo shrimp, unpeeled until just before plating
  • 4 whole allspice berries
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 celery stalk, broken into four pieces
  • 1 tablespoon white vinegar

For the Creole sauce:

  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • 1 medium onion, diced (*1)
  • 1 green pepper, diced
  • 2 stalks celery, diced
  • 1 small garlic clove, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon flour
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • 1 cup tomato puree
  • 1 cup tomatoes, chopped and drained
  • 1/2 cup canned mushroom pieces (*2)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (*3)
  • 1/2 bay leaf
  • 2 cups boiled rice, for service

Prepare the shrimp first.  In a 3-quart saucepan, place enough water to cover the shrimp and add the allspice, cayenne pepper, bay leaf, salt, celery and vinegar.  Set over a medium flame and bring to a boil, then add the shrimp.  Cover the pot and continue boiling for six minutes.

Remove from the flame and drain shrimp in a colander, discarding everything else in the saucepan.  Rinse the shrimp with cold water until they’re barely cool enough to handle. Peel the shrimp and keep them in a warm spot while you prepare the sauce.

Rinse out and dry the saucepan and place it back over a medium flame.  Pour in the oil.  When the oil shimmers, add the onion, green pepper and saute them for four minutes, then stir in the garlic and cook for a minute more.  Add the flour and stir well.

Introduce the chicken stock, tomato puree, tomato pieces and mushrooms.  Sprinkle with salt and add the cayenne pepper and bay leaf.  Cover, reduce flame to low, and cook for thirty minutes.  Turn off the flame and discard the bay leaf.

Divide the rice into four servings, mounding half a cup’s-worth each in the center of four plates.  Arrange about ten shrimp around each mound of rice, and pour half a cup apiece of Creole sauce over the shrimp on each plate, taking care not to get any sauce on the rice.  Garnish rice with parsley (*4) and serve.


1 – You know me and onions, and you can be equally confident I substituted a large shallot.

2 – Generally (OK, almost always), I try to avoid canned or processed products, though an exception is justified in this case.  You see, chefs aboard dining cars prepared their meals while in transit.  This meant they relied on certain products which could be stored and transported, hence the canned products.  Most everything, though, still was made “from scratch,” more than can be said of many modern meals.  Quite an accomplishment in a cramped galley.

3 – Or more.  I found half a teaspoon of cayenne pepper, twice the suggested amount, was just right, providing tingle, while stopping short of a roaring flame.  Many enjoy heat for heat’s sake, though I’m not among them.

4 – Just as I have a hang-up with onions (honest, I do like them!), a similar madness causes me to prefer cilantro to parsley.  Cilantro is fresher, is much less bitter and is, in a word, better.   Sorry, parsley fans!


29 thoughts on “Speeding to New Orleans

    1. You’ll be glad you did, Tamara!

      While you’re at it, have the time machine transport you 70 years into the past, whisking you to Nawlins in style, aboard the Illinois Central’s overnight train. You can enjoy Shrimp Creole in the dining car, before retiring to your cabin to rest up for the Big Easy the next day. Perhaps you’ll stop by Brennan’s to compare its Shrimp Creole to what you had on the train the evening before. Of course, being at Brennan’s, you’ll need to get a beignet too….

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Much appreciated, Kate!

      Your post a couple weeks back about train travel was an apt lead-in, don’t you think? The shoddy present contrasts with the aspiration we once entertained. As for the future, the only tense we can change, it provides dreams and proof we can do it, if we desire it.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Your compliment is greatly appreciated. Thank you!

      A worthy interest, rail travel. In your region, I believe Amtrak sends at least a couple trains back-and-forth over the Cascades every day, Also, I recall reading of a (non-Amtrak) scenic whistle-stop tour of the Willamette valley.

      The next time you’re on the East Coast, Acela (high-speed rail between DC and Boston) is worth experiencing. Something transcendent about dining as the world shoots by at 140MPH, the sun bejeweling the yachts sailing Long Island Sound in the distance.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sounds wonderful and is on my bucket list. I’ve researched a few here in WA a few years back but I have not been able to get the time or money. Things are getting better though, so I’ll probably be looking into it again. Love your blog!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Much appreciated! I’ve reached the same conclusions you have, that rail travel usually is too expensive, both in term of money and, especially, of time, to make the dream a reality.

        Still, we can indulge vicariously, can’t we? There are plenty of intriguing idea in that cookbook, and this one is only the first of what I hope eventually will be many posts!

        Liked by 1 person

  1. I thought I had posted a comment here before but I’m not sure what happened to it. So if this is a repeat I’m sorry… Anyway, rail travel seems very romantic… in the right setting. Commuting via rail for several years in the New York area was nice but actual travel across the land would be ideal. Hopefully something I can do one of these days. I don’t eat shellfish but I’m sure they will have other offerings. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, JoAnn! By the way, apologies if I missed your initial comment. WordPress usually is pretty good about showing me what’s new, but it does miss things on occasion.

      Agreed. Rail travel, particularly as I imagine it was in its glory many decades ago, allows much more to savor than does rushing to and from work.

      Glad you enjoyed the post. That “Dining by Rail” cookbook has many more ideas worthy of exploration in the months ahead. Wait until you see what opens up just past the tunnels. No shellfish this time!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks, JoAnn!

        Don’t cookbooks fascinate? Sure, a few recipes are just – well – “Pass,” but gems glisten as well.

        The best cookbooks are those that strike a personal chord, from places I’ve been, or collections I’ve inherited from relatives, etc. Plus, the great stories and bits of local “color.”

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes I agree. Some of my favorite cookbooks are still the ones I grew up with, including Joy of Cooking. A true gem. And I love all the narrative type cookbooks that have become popular. Jacque Pepin’s autobiography stands out as one of my favorites! Loved reading about his life and his recipes are always spot on.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. The titles you cite are among the best the genre offers, definitely. Many worthy entrants, though, JoAnn!

        One of my favorite authors is Andrea Nguyen, who includes not just the recipes, but also ties them to her early years in South Vietnam. Her style is not only narrative, but a bit conversational as well. Really whets my appetite for the recipe.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed, JoAnn! I bought my volume for the recipes, but stayed for the anecdotes.

        Another cookbook I love is actually taken from a series of detective novels, “The Nero Wolfe Cookbook.” The series author, Rex Stout, was quite the cook himself, and he developed most of the recipes. His prose also is superbly snappy, and every entry is introduced by a passage from one of the novels that mentions the preparation.

        Often, the introductory paragraphs are as savory as are the dishes they introduce, and that’s quite the exacting standard!

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Unique, maybe, though certainly not unknown after this site’s obsessions!

        Over the years (Really? Has it been that long?) the Nero Wolfe Cookbook has inspired entries at least half a dozen times. My favorite? The Duck Mondor posting – “Archie’s Snack.”

        Anyway, more to come, provided I keep the audience interested!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I can’t never it in trains because of my motion sickness. Actually I avoid them all together, BUT, I would eat this heavenly dish no matter the consequences! I love seafood and spicy food, especially Creole! So.. what motion sickness? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sorry to read that, Daniela, particularly given your kind comments.

      A consolation is that it’s not just you who can’t enjoy these meals – it’s all of us. This food was enjoyed back when rail travel blossomed, sixty and more years ago. That era, and the food that romanticized it, are long gone. It lives still only on these pages!

      Liked by 1 person

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