Instead of watching elephants balance on their hind legs and 90-pound women fly through the air, I ate lunch in the Pie Car, the dining area for the 300 or so members of the Ringling Bros circus. What does a circus performer eat? It’s certainly not the cotton candy found at concessions, but it’s not health food either. A few D.C. food writers were invited to eat in the dining car and try Chef Michael Vaughn’s food.
Think wedding food. Hotel meeting food. It’s not easy to cook well for hundreds of people, and in a tiny traveling circus train kitchen, it’s no different. The chef prepares breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks totaling 3,000 meals per week. Performers live 11 months out of the year on this train so everyone has some sort of cooking device in their “room,” from a microwave to a full-fledged range.
We asked the trapeze artist what she eats and she admitted that she mostly “cooks her own food” in her room.
But then I thought about where she was living: on railroad tracks in the middle of nowhere in Southeast D.C. At least for the moment. There is NOTHING for a good few miles. And most everywhere the train stops, in cities all over the country, is far from the actual performance center. How does she find food? A bus transports performers and staff to the supermarket and back. It reminded me of college living, how a shuttle bus took us from campus to the grocer and CVS in 15-minute intervals.
We dined with the Ringmaster, a “cowboy” and a trapeze artist, learning about their life on the road. I was shocked to find out that entire families live on this train; the ring master’s wife (who used to perform and has since been promoted to another position) and two kids travel with him. There’s a nursery and a school on the train. It’s this highly structured, insular community, like some sort of bejeweled army.
The circus pulls talent from all of the world and therefore the chef presents global dishes. The most successful dish (top photo) was the bonitza, prepared by their Bulgarian cook: layers of phyllo, feta and butter, butter, butter. Clearly, this shouldn’t be consumed before a death-defying trick, but it was filling. After our meal, I could understand the trapeze artist wanting to be in control of her own diet.
The chef sources his food, like a majority of the U.S., from Sysco, but sometimes gets items from Whole Foods and local outlets. Understandably, it must be hard to keep fresh items in this tiny space.
But the aspect of circus eating we most fell in love with was silliest: the animal-decorated mugs. We plotted stealing them, and asked the PR rep where they found such perfectly themed drinkware. She whispered that we could lift the mug and check the bottom: Pier 1. The circus is sure good at hiding ordinary reality.