A chef finds out what it's like to travel the U.S. by rail, stopping and sampling food all along the way.
"It's the perfect intersection."
Madi Butler is spending her Summer By Rail, stopping in cities to experience their culture and, more importantly for her, their food.
The 26-year-old, who lives in Austin, Texas, applied for the internship opportunity with the Rail Passengers Association when she found out this year's focus was on food destinations reachable by rail and public transit--an issue near and dear to this chef's heart.
"I've hired out staffs before where, without public transportation, they can't get to their jobs. Both local and regional, it is a chronic issue for people that work second- and third-shift, late-night bartender," she said. "Especially in the kitchen, you can be out as late as 11:30 to midnight, 1 a.m. sometimes.
The problem was highlighted for her growing up in Kentucky.
"There's not a train station in eastern or central Kentucky. I mean, hell, there's one in western Kentucky, and it's a tiny blip on the map, and it takes longer for me to get there than to take a bus to Nashville from my hometown," she said. "So I see many people in my industry and other industries that are really held back by that lack of accessibility, and I think it creates a lot of isolation within the urban and rural divide. Within rural communities, we have amazing food, we have amazing agricultural, and it's so hard to share that with an urban community, when you're isolated by the confines of your relationship to transportation."
Passionate, experienced, and informed, after a video interview with the Rail Passengers Association, Madi heard the magic words:
"'When do you think you can get to D.C.?' And so not even a week later, I packed up what I hope is enough clothing and toiletries for 50 days, and went to D.C., [and] spent about a month there before the trip started."
Her 50-day journey with stops in 21 cities began in Portland, Maine on June 28, 2019.
"Started out in Portland, Maine, rode the Downeaster with Wayne Davis, the man who started the petition to bring back the Downeaster service, and then Boston, Providence, New York, and now I'm here."
"Probably just going to eat a crap-ton of pasta, if I can be totally honest...I love to make my own pasta, and so anywhere that does pasta in-house is really intriguing to me," she said.
Butler attended Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts in Austin, a farm-to-table school, where everything is made from scratch.
"I'm trying to not eat a lot of carbs because I don't want to get bloated and sit on a train, it sucks, [as it does for] any mode of transport really though. I'm excited to see what they have to offer, and every review that I've read is they have a real commitment to the integrity of their food, and I just have a lot of respect for that because I've been on both sides--I've milked the cow; I've been out in my mom's tomato garden, so it's good to see other chefs commit to that kind of excellence.
She wrote later on her blog, that "she had no idea how right" I'd be when I told her she'd love the place, calling Wilmington a "burgeoning city."
In a follow-up text after her meal, she said: "Amazing. I was blown away by everything I tried."
According to her blog, which chronicles her travels by rail, she tried the dry-aged lamb skewers, paccheri, and ricotta gnocchi, describing each bite as "soft, sweet salty goodness." Her review:
"It's clear why Bardea is named Wilmington's best by so many reviewers. The vision manifested by this team is unstoppable."
She had love for Stitch House too. There, Madi tried a flight, sampling several offerings. She called the brew pub's beers "adventurous," highlighting the "refreshing" Hibiscus Belgian Tripel that packs a powerful punch at nine percent.
Her observations about Wilmington:
"It's surprisingly walkable, when I was looking at it on Google maps, for some reason, I just didn't think it was going to be as walkable as it is. And for being in the Northeast, people are like super-friendly here."
She had traveled to Wilmington after spending time in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
"I think there's just sort of inherent isolation that comes from being in a mass city like that, so like millions of people all on top of each other, so to get here, it was kind a tragic isolation isn't it? It's a little contradictory, but here...just a totally friendly vibe...it means a lot when you're not from from somewhere. I come from a place where southern hospitality and congeniality are very much valued, so it's refreshing to see that in a place that I don't know."
This was Madi's third time to Delaware. She visited the Amtrak Test Kitchen a few weeks prior. The first time--like for so many--she was simply driving through.
"My dad took my family on a trip through the Northeast, and we stopped for gas," she laughed at the memory. "And the funny thing was, because Delaware is such a small, little place...we had a Suburban at the time, [and my brother] was actually asleep on the way back, and he woke up when we got through the top of the state, and he was like 'Well, damn! I slept through Delaware.'"
The program and its sponsors pay for Butler's travel, hotel accommodations, and her meals.
"I want to give a mix of everything from side-of-the-road, food trailer, $5 option to James Beard-nominated chef options because, again, I want this to be something that anyone can do, and I want to inspire people to be like 'Oh I could hop a train for four hours and try out a new city for the day.' And if that's not affordable, then it's not accessible. So I don't want to highlight the champions of different communities, but also the underdogs."
But for those of us living along the Northeast corridor, we're lucky to be so connected. While taking the train is billed as the environmentally-friendly and faster option, it's not exactly friendly on your wallet for family travel.
"That's sort of the paradox that Amtrak exists within. In the early seventies, when they passed the budget and the establishment of Amtrak, it was designed to be a for-profit company, even though it's owned by the government and subsidized.
But other countries in Europe, southeast Asia, and South America have realized it's not functional.
"So they either nationalize the rail or completely privatize it. I'm a fan of nationalizing it because it drives down your cost, and you don't have a need for-profit margin, and yes, it may change some of the bylaws of taxation in areas that are affected, but ultimately, if it's affordable and accessible, people will use it.
And you can see that with the U-Bahn, with the S-Bahn with the train services through, I mean, hell, Tokyo to Kyoto, Peru, Chile, Argentina, there's tons of places where it obviously works," she said. "I don't know exactly the depth of reform that would have to happen here to make that possibility, but again it comes back to accountability, and transparency, I think."
Butler sees a future for herself in pushing for accessible transportation and advocating for change on the federal level. She said climate change makes the train a better option than most.
"I think that doing what you can within the public sector to advocate for positive change that is environmentally sustainable and conscious of supporting working class Americans is essential to survival at this point," she said. "I have seen the effects of climate change, and I do believe if we don't cut down on carbon emissions, it's going to put us in a really vulnerable place a decade from now, maybe two, if we're lucky," she said.
She also knows there's a lot of disinterest in driving among younger generations, especially those living in urban environments.
"[For them], it just doesn't make any sense to pay for tax, title, insurance, parking, idling on the highway, losing your free time in your commute. The inter-connectivity that we have these days, even during your commute you're still answering texts, and emails, and checking your schedule, and that's not something you should be doing while driving a car."
She added flying isn't all that convenient either.
"I've done a lot of private chef gigs, and I used to fly, but packing my knife roll and all of my...kitchen tools means that I'm checking a bag, so that's instantly another $30 to $50 on top of whatever my ticket cost, and I've don the rigmarole with the TSA where they pull out the melon-baller, and they're like 'Well what is this?' And then I have to explain my entire trade and craft to justify whether or not I can get on a plane."
"The off-put from air travel is adversely affecting our planet as well, so if there are alternative methods that involve putting more people into a smaller space over a longer distance, I'm very comfortable with that...it's a matter of efficiency, prioritization, and accessibility."
From Wilmington, Butler went back to D.C., and was most looking forward to something the rest of us likely take for granted:
"I finally get to laundry!" she laughed.
We asked her, how do you pack for a trip like this?
"I'm a big fan of the capsule wardrobe; I love having pieces that are easy to exchange or interchange to create different looks."
Her itinerary then takes her south.
"Which is funny because everyone keeps asking me: 'Are you going to be okay in, like...August in the south?' This is when I thrive, when the humidity's high, and my curly hair lives its best life, and my skin is nourished."
Her trip ends August 20, 2019, in the San Francisco Bay area, where her father and step-mom will pick her up.
"I'll end it at the Oakland station...I was just like 'be prepared, I'm going to be like a smelly, road-warrior, sunburned mess, but I love you, dad, [and] I'll see you [then].'"
Butler hopes travelers find her journey inspirational.
"Maybe, I'll change the minds of some people who might've been opposed to the train before, it's really what I want is for people to see that anyone can do this."
"If I get stuck somewhere in the middle of the night, I am 100-percent going to get on my live-stream and be like 'so I'm stuck.' And that's me. I'm a fairly well-traveled person, I'm not afraid of traveling by myself. What if it wasn't me? What if I was someone who was marginalized or in a vulnerable position, and that's why ultimately my goal is to advocate for the passengers because we are the Rail Passengers Association, and I want to make sure when I say that this is trip is something that anyone can do in America, that that is fundamentally true."