The opening strains of “The Lion King” soundtrack waft from the circus tent next door, signaling that the clowns have finished a round of pratfalls, the fire eater is breathing flames and the star aerialist is preparing to spin — hanging by her teeth from a bit attached to her trapeze — near the dizzying heights of the big top.
The musical cue means it’s almost intermission.
“It’s my show time,” says the aptly named Jeremiah Cook, a 23-year-old Texan.
His stage is the Kelly Miller Circus cookhouse, a semitrailer parked this summer afternoon on the outskirts of Olney, a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C. From its 30-by-8-foot galley kitchen, Cook produces at least two meals a day for up to 96 people, including cast, crew and their families.
It’s a numbers game, a juggling act, and Cook is ready.
He opens the oven of a six-burner U.S. Range and extracts two industrial-size pans of cornbread, replacing them with two more pans of batter. Minutes later, while he stirs a huge pot of chopped chicken breast in lemon-caper sauce, a clown in greasepaint appears at the serving window.
“What’ve you got today?” Steve Copeland asks. He grins when Cook loads an extra piece of cornbread onto a plate heaped with chicken, rice and mixed vegetables. Copeland joins a handful of other diners already settled in the dining tent.
To audiences, American circus food means cotton candy, peanuts and other concession fare. To the cast, crew and their families, it could be anything from burgers to beef teriyaki with broccoli, from pancakes to panna cotta — from the mundane to the magnificent.
Mobility — of traveling shows and the people who work on them — generates a flood of culinary crosscurrents. A show’s American and foreign-born entourage, along with regional specialties discovered along the route, influence what’s served in the cookhouse, individual motor homes and at “show” potlucks.
“Because you’re dealing with international families, you’re not just going to get noodle salads,” Tavana Brown says of those potlucks.
A former aerialist who now manages Kelly Miller’s office, Brown says the circus currently includes people from throughout the United States and from Italy, Mexico, Peru and Argentina. In years past, “we had Hungarians, who traditionally did teeterboard acts, bring goulash. The Spaniards made paella. We had a woman from Cuba who brought these wonderful black beans and rice. Her kids would go, ‘Oh, she’s making it again’ ” — but everyone else lapped up the combination.
Kelly Miller dates to 1938 and is owned today by John Ringling North II, a great-nephew of the famed Ringling brothers. Last year, the Hugo, Okla.-based show logged 11,000 miles from early February well into October, its caravan of RVs and semi-trailers — some loaded with elephants, tigers, zebras and ponies — “jumping” at least every other day from town to town in the Deep South, mid-Atlantic, Midwest and Northeast.
“Being on the road, I enjoy eating the different things that the country has to offer,” says Copeland, the clown from South Carolina. “Here in Maryland, friends bring us seafood, and a friend in Baltimore brings me Berger cookies” with their thick chocolate-fudge frosting. “When we play down South, I like to eat barbecue. And, in the beginning of the year, we have some excellent Mexican food because we’re right on the border,” he adds, reminiscing about a stew of rib-eye steak and potatoes cooked in a clay pot.
Still, Copeland says he eats most of his meals at the cookhouse. “I’m saving my money, since Jeremiah does such a good job,” he says.
Cook entered circus life a couple of years ago and joined Kelly Miller in 2012, learning cooking basics from his predecessor. He began running the cookhouse this year, serving lunch from 11 a.m. to noon and a supper in late afternoon, stretching from the first performance’s intermission to before the second show begins.
“This is a very traditional way of supplementing their pay,” Cook says of feeding the cast and crew. “A lot of places we go, there are no restaurants around. It’s a service available to everybody.
“Mr. John Ringling North himself has told me he wants everyone to be fed — pleasantly,” Cook says. The cookhouse feeds about 70 people a day, with the rest — especially families with young children — cooking for themselves.
Cook’s job entails not just cooking but budgeting. For example, he got 40 pounds of London broil, on sale at $2.99 a pound. “I’m marinating it in Worcestershire sauce and garlic,” he says. “I’m getting up at 4 in the morning to roast it.” He’ll be cooking while his truck is in transit.
From his previous work with a moving company, Cook learned how to securely strap items into place — including the oven door — before the cookhouse semitrailer rumbles off to the circus’ next location.
Endless days on the road leave people craving comfort food, which has many iterations in a diverse crowd. “They really like beef tacos. I make a good guacamole and the guys appreciate it when I prepare menudo,” the spicy Mexican soup made from beef stomach, Cook says. “But hot dogs have to be one of the favorites in the cookhouse.”
Cook has expanded his repertoire under his circus colleagues’ tutelage.
A Mexican family coached him on how to make ceviche, insisting on fresh citrus, not bottled citrus juice. The acidity in the juice effectively cooks the fish.
One of Cook’s informal advisers is Cristian Loyal, 20, who works with his father, an elephant and horse trainer of Italian descent, and who learned kitchen arts from his mother, a Peruvian contortionist now living in Florida. “I’m circus on both sides,” Loyal says.
He’s teaching Cook one of his favorites, arroz chaufa de pollo, a Chinese-Peruvian fried rice with chicken. “You boil chicken and strip it from the bone, mix it with scrambled eggs and vegetables and add soy sauce,” Loyal says.
While the Kelly Miller cookhouse turns out plenty of dishes that can be prepped quickly after a move and that cast and crew can eat on the run, Cook strives for wholesome, healthful fare. He looks for lean meats and sometimes fish, and offers produce at every meal. In hot weather, he always has watermelon — and Popsicles.
“If I ate all of Jeremiah’s food, I’d be gi-normous!” says performer Rebecca Ostroff, laughing and holding aloft two plates of chicken, rice and vegetables that she’s just collected from the cookhouse window to bring back to her musician husband and their teenage daughter.
That wouldn’t fly for Ostroff, the star aerialist, who performed her “Iron Jaw” spinning act in the 2011 film “Like Water for Elephants.” Her family’s RV refrigerator always holds yogurt and salad fixings, she says.
“Becky is known for her brilliant salads,” says her friend Brown, the office manager, of Ostroff’s potluck offerings.
Ostroff makes a “massaged” kale salad, breaking down the greens’ tougher fibers by working in a lemony, garlicky vinaigrette with her hands. She adds chopped red onion plus any other produce that strikes her fancy, and adds nuts for crunch. “If you’re feeling rich, it’s pine nuts. If you’re not, it’s sunflower seeds,” she says.
Norberto Fusco, patriarch of the Argentine family that performs a gaucho-tango act, draws praise for his skill with the grill. He slowly grills beef, serving it with chimichurri, a sauce of fresh parsley, oregano and garlic. “The way they cook meat is always sensational,” Ostroff says of the Argentines. “They have a knack for it.”
One of the Fusco daughters — Natalia, married to the elephant trainer — makes a cake with fondant for every party, Ostroff adds. “It’s just remarkable to me that families in small compartments can bring out a gourmet, amazing meal.”
For Cook, the people and the potlucks are a source of inspiration and satisfaction.
“This,” Cook says, surveying the circus lot from the top step of his cookhouse, “is the perfect environment.”
Then another face pops up at the cookhouse window. It’s show time.
Female performers in the Big Apple Circus had a tradition of starting the weekend with a “ladies’ night” after their Friday-evening performance. The dressing-room gathering frequently included chevre or goat cheese encrusted with crushed peppercorns, cumin seeds and mint. It’s adapted from “The Flag Is Up: International Red Nose Cookbook” (2010), a collection of recipes from circus cooks and chefs used as a fundraiser for the future Circus City Museum and Park Inc. in Hugo, Okla.
- 1 teaspoon toasted and crushed peppercorns
- 1 teaspoon toasted cumin seeds
- 2 to 3 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
- 6-ounce log chevre (goat cheese)
- 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
- Baguette or crackers
Toast peppercorns in a skillet over low heat for several minutes, stirring frequently to avoid burning. Transfer to pestle or food processor and crush. Meanwhile, toast cumin seeds in skillet until lightly browned, again stirring frequently. Combine with mint in shallow dish or plate, stirring to mix well.
Roll chevre in mixture to completely coat. Transfer to serving plate and drizzle with olive oil. Serve with crackers or thinly sliced baguette. If not serving immediately, wrap chevre in wax paper and refrigerate immediately. It will keep for 2 to 3 days.
American circuses often attract cast and crew members from outside the country. In Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, chilled fruit soups take advantage of abundant summer produce. This adapted recipe, attributed to Beverly Royal, appears in "The Flag Is Up: International Red Nose Cookbook" (2010), a collection of recipes from circus cooks and chefs used as a fundraiser for the future Circus City Museum and Park Inc. in Hugo, Okla.
- 4 cups fresh raspberries
- 4 cups boiling water
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- 1/4 teaspoon grated lemon zest
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar, or to taste
- Fresh mint leaves for garnish, if desired
Reserve 1/2 cup of the raspberries. Crush remaining raspberries and combine with boiling water, wine, lemon juice, zest and sugar. In heavy saucepan, cook over medium heat for 15 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent scorching. Remove from heat and chill at least 1 hour. Puree, using blender or immersion blender. Just before serving, garnish with remaining raspberries. If desired, also garnish with fresh mint leaves.
Chicken bathed in orange juice and chili pepper acquires a welcome tang in this recipe attributed only to Esperanza -- no last name mentioned -- of the Carson and Barnes Circus. The recipe is adapted from “The Flag Is Up: International Red Nose Cookbook” (2010), developed by various circus casts and crews as a fundraiser for the future Circus City Museum and Park Inc. in Hugo, Okla.
- 1 whole chicken, cut up
- 2 cups orange juice
- Whole black peppers, to taste
- 4 to 6 garlic cloves, or to taste
- 1 teaspoon ground chiltepin chili pepper, or to taste
- 1 medium red onion, sliced
Preheat oven to 400 F.
Place chicken in ceramic or other nonreactive baking dish. Mix together the orange juice and seasonings, to taste. Pour over chicken in the dish. Top with red onion slices. Bake for 30 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and cook 20 to 30 minutes longer, until meat is tender and juices run clear when the chicken is pierced with a fork. Serve immediately.