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The Art of Circus Cooking
On July 4, 1935, circus staff gather at the Ringling Bros. cookhouse to eat and celebrate.
On July 4, 1935, circus staff gather at the Ringling Bros. cookhouse to eat and celebrate.
Photo by E.J. Kelty, courtesy of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art

Food is a vital aspect of circus life, with an eclectic cuisine derived from many places and times. Like many of us, circus artists eat what they like—often reflecting where in the world they came from, nutritional considerations, and ingredients available. Accordingly, circus cooks learned to prepare regional specialties, as well as dishes and recipes provided by artists from abroad.

When circus people numbering in the thousands traveled across North America by train and performed in enormous tents, the cookhouse tent was one of the first erected in order to keep everyone fed for their long days of high-caloric burn. At Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, more than one hundred people worked in the cookhouse to prepare thousands of meals—served by white-jacketed waiters three times a day and signaled by raising the cookhouse flag.

Breakfast typically included cereals, bread, pancakes, fresh fruit if available, thousands of eggs, bacon, and coffee. Lunch and dinner provided soup, salad (with fresh ingredients if available), stewed or barbecued meats, potatoes or other starches, and simple desserts, along with coffee, tea, or milk. Thanks to the wider availability of foods today, circus artists have more options, but the meals remain an important part of the day and a shared part of circus life.

At the Carson and Barnes Circus in 1995, “no whistling” was one of the cookhouse rules.
At the Carson and Barnes Circus in 1995, “no whistling” was one of the cookhouse rules.
Photo by Dawn Rogala, courtesy of Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History

The Festival Cookhouse

At the 2017 Folklife Festival, four circus cooks will demonstrate various dishes and share stories about the many tastes of circus food. Watch for the cookhouse flag!

See a full schedule of Cookhouse events

Sarah Chapman joined Sailor Circus at age twelve and has performed aerial acts for twenty years. Her love for cooking inspired her to publish four circus-themed cookbooks and a memoir. She is also an independent scholar of circus culture and gives circus-related presentations at national conferences.

Rebecca Geren has worked in the restaurant industry for more than twenty years. With her husband Chris, she opened a food cart that serves quality local foods. Their three children are all part of the Wenatchee Youth Circus. While traveling alongside her kids, she helps run the cook shack, serving healthy meals for the performers.

Raymond Slizewski received a degree in culinary arts at Newbury College in Boston. He has spent thirty years cooking for others, including six years as chef for the Big Apple Circus, where he operated a recreation/community hall called the Cookhouse that ran twenty-four hours a day. With circus workers coming from all over the world, he has spent much time creating culturally diverse dishes.

Amity Stoddard joined Circus Smirkus in 2003 as kitchen director and documented her travels in a memoir-in-stories. Since then, she has worked as touring artistic office manager for Big Apple Circus, touring chef for Cirque du Soleil, and assisting coach/manager for Academy of Circus Arts. In 2015, she co-founded the Sellam Circus School.

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