Back in the so-called halcyon days of my circus youth with Ringling Brothers, I got what nourishment I could on my meager salary from the pie car. This was a train car converted into a restaurant on the rails. You came in one vestibule, ordered and paid for your grub, and when you were done you waltzed out the other vestibule. Or maybe staggered. It depended on who was cooking.
For you see the pie car was not staffed by professional chefs and wait staff. Far from it. It was manned, or maybe manhandled would be the better word, by anyone traveling with the show who wanted to make some extra money.
I distinctly remember a few of the constantly revolving staff.
The Hungarian teeterboard troupe had an auxiliary named Horlack, who did nothing essential during the act except stand around in his spangled costume and wave a Hungarian flag. So at the beginning of the season he was dragooned into cooking for the pie car. I soon learned that goulash is Hungarian for “leftovers with lots of paprika.” One evening I pulled a large corn cob out of my goulash and showed it indignantly to him.
“Vhat iss wrong vit dat?” he purred in a sinister voice redolent of Bela Lugosi on a bad fang day. “Is old Hoongarian cooking style.”
It also was most of the bulk in my bowl. When I tossed it away I had about three tablespoons worth of goulash left.
Thankfully he went back to flag waving fairly soon.
Our next chef was the French tightrope walker’s wife. This boded well, I thought, since France is the home of gourmet cooking.
She did cook elegant food, all right. And ladled vast quantities of cheap wine into everything, as well as into herself. I’m sure I could have gotten corn flakes in brandy had I wanted it.
Dinner time was around midnight for the circus, after the evening performance, and by then she was always pretty ‘flustered’ from the breakfast and lunch menu. You might order ham and eggs but wind up eating goose liver pate with French fries instead.
And she insisted on spraying the entire length of the pie car with a violent eau de cologne that reminded me of perfumed cotton candy. Like they say in the Maturin/Aubrey books, cloying ain’t in it.
She was superseded by members of Chico-Chico’s family. Chico-Chico was an outstanding Mexican clown, whose cousins and aunts were numbered in the dozens – all working on the circus concession stands.
And by golly they could COOK! Big portions, plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit, and handmade tortillas!
For several weeks I basked in their wholesome and friendly cookery. I had reached Beulah Land at last. But, of course, it couldn’t last.
They gradually started to introduce an assertive hot sauce into everything. One drop would fricassee my tongue. Two drops would cause my ear wax to melt. Three drops was like trying to eat a lit blow torch.
I begged them, I pleaded with moist eyes and a sob catching in my throat for them to leave out the hot sauce. They would smile complacently and say most certainly, amigo. And then they would add another pint of the deadly stuff.
I finally gave up. I started eating out.
I learned much later that Chico-Chico’s relatives eventually sold their hot sauce recipe to NASA for rocket fuel.
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