THE BLOG
02/24/2014 06:31 pm ET Updated Apr 26, 2014

Amtrak's Brilliant 'Residency' Program

Like (seemingly) every single writer and aspiring writer in the US, I was jumping up and down and scaring my pets when I heard about the idea of Amtrak offering "residencies" to writers. As both a writer and a rider, not to mention bona fide train geek, this seemed like one of those Celestine Moments, the confluence of two great loves in my life.

A touch of background: A couple of writers were conversing about how/when/where they like to write. They were doing this via the service that is both blessing and bane to all writers: Twitter (perhaps you've heard of it). They agreed that they both liked to write while commuting on the train, and one mentioned that Amtrak should offer a "residency." The folks who run the feed at @Amtrak took notice and took them up on it, offering a couple of free rides. The result was viral mayhem for anyone who fancies themselves able to string together a noun and a verb.

To get a taste of the response, search the hashtag #AmtrakResidency and then kick back for a few hours while you read the thousands of posts by people hoping to catch a train to literary stardom (you'll find me among them on feeds @KurtMFriese and @EdibleIA). These posts are what Amtrak officially requested, in the meantime, while they work feverishly to set up a formal application system.

As for me, I write about food, and all things related to food. Some people may tend to diss the food on Amtrak, but I am not among them, especially when you take a moment to compare it to food on the airlines, even in "First Class." Guide Michelin will not be awarding any stars to Amtrak anytime soon, however the food is hot, served to you at a table by a waiter, with actual metal flatware and wine in glasses made of glass. But if I were to garner one of these residencies, I would not write about the food on the trains themselves. I would want to take one of these trips (or more, if they were feeling generous!), and write about the food along the way: About the great local food to be found at the myriad stops on the route, from big city to Podunk town.

The great thing about traveling by train is the view. Well, that and the fact that you can use your phone, access the Internet, and there's a bar. And when I look at that view of America, the splendor and the poverty of it, the one thing that strikes me is that the only better way to know America is to know its food, on an intimate level. To shake the hand that raised the food, that harvested it, that cooked it, that cared enough to try to do it well.

I imagine myself on the Empire Builder, exploring the great food in big cities like Chicago, Milwaukee, the Twin Cities and Seattle, as well as the tiny burgs like Shelby, Montana or Sandpoint, Idaho. Great local food is everywhere; you just need to know how to find it. That's why there are Edible Magazines in 80 locations across the US and Canada, because there are people who care about their food no matter where you go.

Amtrak insists this is not a publicity ploy, not "pay for play," and I take them at their word. That said, they certainly are getting some great visibility on the social networks out of the deal, and I must admit that I've been dreaming up some workable partnerships between Amtrak and Edible Communities. All of that aside though, I can think of very few things I would like more than to take a week, or two, and hop on and off the Empire Builder or the Southwest Chief or the Lakeshore Limited or the California Zephyr or the City of New Orleans, and chronicle, in print and podcast, the wonderful food along the way and the people who make it. That right there is why I cook, it's why I write, and it's why I live.