Friday, March 02, 2007

Lunching at the Ringling Brothers Pie Car

The "Core Four" had a great opportunity today to enjoy an eating experience that usually enjoyed only by the staff and performers who travel with the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus' Red Unit. We got to enjoy a meal on the "pie car", the train car that provides the food for the hundreds of trainers, performers, maintenance and set-up staff that make up the Greatest Show on Earth. A friend of ours who works with the circus invited us to come and have a meal and take a behind-the-scenes look. The circus actually has a red team and a blue team and this year it was the red team that came to our area (see right Al Roker on the blue team's pie car- for more of a behind the scenes look, see the Ringling Brother's site where this photo is posted) Since it is such an unusual experience (and a wonderful one) I wanted to share it with you to give you a peek inside a world that is very different from the one most of us are part of everyday.

When the circus comes to town, some staff and performers stay near the arena but the bulk of the people who make the circus happen live on a set of train cars that are "parked" during the show's run in a town and are bussed back and forth to the arena. Besides going to the pie car we had the opportunity to see a room for one of the staff. On the train, every inch is used, the corridors are tiny, only one person can pass through at a time. Most rooms have sleeping berths with a mini-kitchen like you would see in a small camper. The room we saw was described as one of the larger ones and it was about 8x10 feet but had been made a home on rails by its occupant.

The pie car takes up an entire train car and inside it looks like a diner with booths (see the Core Four seated, left) with a long narrow kitchen at the end. The kitchen has to be open 24 hours just like your home kitchen so people can come down to get a midnight snack or glass of milk. We were greeted by one of the Ringling chefs, Xavier, who had joined the circus in January. The day we were there, the train was celebrating their 100th show since they started the season in January (this was March 3rd to give you an idea of how hard these people work). He let us know our choices - tilapia, beef or chicken shish kebab, salad, macaroni and cheese or rice as a side. My husband and I, trying to observe Lent, opted for the tilapia (I had macaroni and cheese, my husband, rice) and the girls had mixed beef and chicken shish kebab). Our friend also brought along a young local politician and the chef from a local restaurant, who was quickly co-opted by Xavier to check out his kitchen (I don't think he will ever complain about how tight his kitchen is after that experience!) While we waited for our meals we had a chance to talk with some of the circus employees who were lingering over their meals in the pie car. They hailed from all over-New York City, Virginia's Eastern Shore, Southside of Chicago, Brooklyn and Hell's Kitchen (now the new Times Square, Xavier noted). They all were friendly and anxious to tell stories about their time with the circus, what the traveling life is like and how their time with the circus is a way to build their future. One electrician, a proud teamster, was getting additional skill, training and experience so he could start his own HVAC business. Xavier, our chef, is getting additional experience and saving money to eventually open a restaurant with his brother in London, and another young man wants to work toward an online degree so that he can return to Japan, where he grew up, as a teacher. They also didn't mind telling stories on and teasing each other, much like your own family would around the dinner table. When our food was ready, we had huge mounds of food, and for my husband and I, two fillets of tilapia, seasoned with a seasoning mix that was Xavier's secret, and perfectly cooked, tender and flaky. The macaroni and cheese was comfort food to the nth degree. The girls' shish kebabs had huge chunks of beef and chicken that had been marinated on a bed of white rice. They could only eat about half before they said that they would take their leftovers home for dinner (which they did, eating every bite!)

As we lingered, mainly because the company was as good as the food, we heard about the challenges of cooking in such a small space, cooking when the train is moving, feeding people at two sites (the train and the arena), and from all over the world (Brazilians, Chinese, Russian are some of the larger populations in the circus). We heard that Brazilians can eat their weight in quesadillas, and that Russians love anything with potatoes. Xavier, who previously cooked in vegan and vegetarian restaurants is always trying to introduce more vegetables and fruits and fresh dishes into the mix. Asked what his favorite thing to cook was, he said that when he had the budget he loved to cook lamb, since that was his favorite meat. He then took me on a tour of his workspace (that is Xavier and I in his kitchen looking into his cooler at right). I have to say that the picture actually makes his kitchen look bigger than it actually is! I am a size 8 and I had to turn sideways to walk between the burners and griddle on the right and the steam tables on the left. Though I usually subscribe to the idea that you shouldn't trust a skinny chef, I told Xavier that I could see how he stayed slim since about a half hour after he had cooked it was quite warm in the kitchen. He said that when he was cooking he had the fans on, but acknowledged that even with the fans (upper right of the picture) it could still get warm in the midst of meal preparation.

After about two hours (that seemed much shorter!) we hated to leave but thought we had better let Xavier and the crew get back to their work. We said our goodbyes, took our leftovers (including a slice of cheesecake, that Xavier insisted we try). One of the staff members gave our girls Ringling Brothers patches, and as we drove off beside the train, the guys we had shared a meal with, including our chef Xavier, waved.

It was a meal, and people, that I will never forget!

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