Leland ‘Sugar’ Cain, top railroad chef in glory era, dead at 92

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Leland “Sugar” Cain worked for more than 50 years for the Chicago & North Western railroad. | Mark Llanuza

From the time he was a kid, Leland “Sugar” Cain always wanted to work on trains.

He grew up in Bronzeville, one of six children of a railroad waiter. In 1941, at 16, he started working for the Chicago & North Western line as a “fourth cook” — a euphemism for dishwasher.

He rose to be a top chef in an era when movie stars and politicians crisscrossed the country by rail, disembarking in Chicago at Union Station to pose for publicity pictures.

Mr. Cain, 92, who’d been in declining health, died Aug. 7 at his South Shore home, according to his son Charles.

He was one of the last surviving C&NW dining-car employees from the glamorous heyday of train travel.

Leland “Sugar” Cain was a top chef with the Chicago & North Western railroad. | Mark Llanuza

Leland “Sugar” Cain was a top chef with the Chicago & North Western railroad. | Mark Llanuza

During more than 50 years with the railroad, he prepared prime rib and apple pie for tens of thousands of passengers, his meals — served on fine china and linens — helping to make rail travel leisurely and luxurious. Actor Yul Brynner and comic Jackie Gleason were among those who rode his trains. 

When he started with the railroad, African-Americans weren’t welcome as conductors or engineers.

“It was unheard of back then,” said train historian Mark Llanuza, who works for Metra.

“There was a lot of racism,” said Mr. Cain’s friend Ralph Justen, former executive director of the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

The many African-American men who worked in train kitchens often weren’t visible to passengers, but Mr. Cain and others contributed to the railroads’ success, said Edward Burkhardt, a former boss.

“One of the ways they competed with each other was their dining cars,” said Burkhardt, a former C&NW vice president who’s now chief executive officer of Rail World, a transportation consulting firm. “He was a great chef but also Mr. Personality.”  

“He cooked the best porterhouse steak,” Burkhardt said. After riding Mr. Cain’s route for a week, “I’d always come back weighing a few more pounds.”

Said Llanuza, “I don’t know if anybody can ever beat his pies — banana cream and apple pie.”

Mr. Cain took pride in fine railway dining.

“I remember when people used to board the train in Chicago just to have their lunch and then get off the train before it left,” he said in a 1990 interview with the McHenry County Star News. “That’s how good the cooking was.”

He worked the “City of Los Angeles” route to California, Burkhardt said, at times being away from his family for six or seven days at a time.

But he wouldn’t have traded what he did for anything, according to his family. To him, “It was the best job,” said his son, a Union Pacific engineer. “That was his home.”

“The Cain family knows a good thing when they find it,” Mr. Cain said in the 2006 book “Working on the Railroad.” “My father was a railroader, I was a railroader, and my son is a railroader. I had a daughter who was a railroader . . . . Working for the railroad was the best thing that ever happened to my family.”

Leland “Sugar” Cain tending to riders in a bar car. | Mark Llanuza

Leland “Sugar” Cain tending to riders in a bar car. | Mark Llanuza

At a 1980 charity event, a bidder paid $2,250 for a dinner for eight prepared by Mr. Cain and served in a C&NW presidential dining car. He fed them caviar, crab, chateaubriand and baked Alaska.

In the mid-1980s, he started managing the bar car on a commuter train to Richmond and Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, catering to a loyal clientele.

And after his son’s 1982 wedding, Mr. Cain traded his tuxedo for a chef’s toque to whip up prime rib for the guests.

“He cooked all the food, every bit of it,” said his daughter-in-law Kathy. “It was about 150 people. It was his gift.

“The rule was: You have to use quality ingredients to get a quality taste,” she said. “He never went with off-brand anything.”

Mr. Cain never owned a car.

“We always took the bus everywhere,” said his son. “He said he didn’t have time to get a license.” He did his grocery shopping via the CTA. “By the time we got done, I’d have two shopping bags, and he’d have four.”

Mr. Cain retired in the mid-1990s.

In addition to his son, he is survived by his daughter Carol, sister Gwendolyn Washington, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Visitation is set for 11:30 a.m. Wednesday at Doty Nash Funeral Home, 8620 S. Stony Island, with a service there at noon. His ashes will be interred at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood.

Leland “Sugar” Cain. | Mark Llanuza

Leland “Sugar” Cain. | Mark Llanuza

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