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Stephen Fried

An except from Appetite for America: Fred Harvey and the Business of Civilizing the Wild West--One Meal at a Time (Bantam) by Stephen Fried

Fred-paperback-cover-email.jpgThe glistening, modern, all-steel Santa Fe Super Chief--the fastest and classiest train ride ever between Chicago and Los Angeles--was the transportation of choice for business and Hollywood types still anxious about flying. In fact, they became so reliant on the train, after its 1936 debut, that it was not uncommon to hear people use "chief " as a verb, as in "I just chiefed in from the coast."

While the Super Chief had the same excellent Fred Harvey dining car service as its predecessors, it had an extra touch: Mary Colter designed a revolutionary china pattern, called Mimbreño, just for its dining cars. She based her design on the whimsical pottery made by Indians in New Mexico's Mimbres valley during the thirteenth century, so all the pieces were decorated with blood-red paintings of stylized, floating animals: amusing fish chasing each other's tails, genuflecting parrots, leaping quail, wrestling birds, and all manner of funny bunnies. The dishes were almost too enchanting to sully with food. They were used in an exclusive dining car space called the Turquoise Room.

mimbreno-setting.jpg
Mimbreño china, Gordon Chappell Collection

The only downside to the Super Chief was that its terminus in Los Angeles was the antiquated Santa Fe La Grande station on East First Street. But that changed in 1939 when the Santa Fe, Union Pacific, and Southern Pacific finally completed construction of the new $11 million ($164 million today) Los Angeles Union Station. Considered the last great railroad station in America, it was also the last for which Fred Harvey was hired to run all the restaurants and retail stores. While Mary Colter did not design the entire majestic station complex, she did create a remarkable space for the Fred Harvey eateries. It had a spectacular arched ceiling that brought to mind the inside of Jonah's whale, spacey Deco fixtures, and a dazzling floor, which appeared to be random zigzags and geometrics until you stepped back and realized it was actually a block-long Navajo blanket made of linoleum tiles.

Colter also designed a marvelous Deco cocktail lounge. Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper immediately dubbed it the "newest rendezvous in town . . . so pleasant there it's a joy to miss your train. No one wants to catch one."

Stephen Fried is the author of "Thing of Beauty," "Husbandry," "The New Rabbi," and "Bitter Pills: Inside the Hazardous World of Legal Drugs," and an adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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