ABOARD THE PIE CAR — On this day, circus performers will be gnawing on ears of sweet corn, Polish sausage, sauerkraut and mashed potatoes in the pie car. They need stick-to-your ribs food if they are jumping and tumbling and getting lions and tigers to do tricks.
We’re astonished to be guests in the pie car of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Outsiders normally are banned.
“Pie car” is a crazy name for a rolling railroad restaurant coach where food is served daily to circus performers … menus for 16 different cultures from around the world, prepared by five cooks.
“You are the only outsider ever invited to dine in our railroad pie car,” says Emily Ritter, a national coordinator for Ringling, which is making its traditional Labor Day weekend run at the iWireless Center in Moline. “You are a rarity.”
We had rumbled along a dirt access road, not far from where the old International Harvester Farmall Works once turned out tractors in Rock Island, to find the pie car. In the hot sun was a shiny, silvery string of passenger train coaches parked on a shabby siding. All coaches — with the blue Ringling logo — were numbered; we were on our way to car number 181.
We climb aboard, passing a shiny chrome buffet line where performers fill their china plates.
“Greetings,” says Kelli Argott, a clown with a blond poofy wig and superb clown makeup. Alongside was her husband, Wages, whose exhausting job is to lead the Ringling band. My wife sits with them while I share a booth with Paulo DeSantos, a Brazilian clown.
We expect chips and dip. But Matt Loory, chef of the pie car, says: “For you, we have a special dinner.”
Slender 14-inch-tall bottles of water look like vases. The water is from Norway. Our lunch is enormous, dinner-size portions served on trendy square plates. It is a shrimp pasta dish, with tiny nuts and more ingredients than I could understand. “We don’t serve things like this very often,” the chef says.
I was surprised that there was no pie for dessert.
“We never have pie on the pie car. That’s tradition,” Matt says. “Once in a while, there is cheesecake.”
I protest that cheesecake is not pie, but big top tradition is tradition.
With performers from all over the world, the chef must cater to their native tastes.
“I have to prepare things appealing to the performers’ culture,” says Matt. “Performers from Bulgaria like my type of goulash. Brazilians want dishes with lots of eggs. Chicken alfredo is always big. It is easy with Orientals — lots of rice
“Ironically, our hottest item with all cultures is cheeseburger with fries.”
I ask if performers in high acts, for example, must do their turn on an empty stomach or risk becoming ill. Matt says it doesn’t seem to make any difference when they eat.
“Breakfast in the pie car is the biggest meal of the day for performers. Pancakes, sausage, the works. We have to throw it at them as fast as we can turn it out,” says Matt.
For some, breakfast is the meal that keeps them going most of the day.
With a few exceptions, performers do not get free meals. Full meals on the pie car are $5.50. From what I was told, that is an enormous meal. Cheeseburgers, about 3½ inches thick, are $3. On dates where there three shows — as there will be today — meals are free for performers. That eases the stress of three tough shows in a day
On the pie car, everything revolves around the performances. In a week, between 400 and 500 meals are served. The pie car opens at 6 a.m. and shuts down for a few hours at 1 p.m. It reopens at 6 p.m. and stays open until every performer and worker has left the arena after the night show.
Everyone seems to love working the pie car, especially Vera Mehizaceh, who has worked a pie car on various shows for 11 years.
For the chef, it's a new experience.
“This is my first year. I graduated from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Orlando,” he says.
The pie car is spiffy, quite similar to diners on regular cross-country trains. The walls are decorated with framed posters of performers like Unus, who balanced on his pointer finger; Lou Jacobs the multi-jointed clown, and Jumbo, the legendary bull (elephant).
We eat and banter circus talk and superstitions, how whistling is banned during a performance, lest it be mistaken for a signal for an animal or a performance rigger; how the movie “The Greatest Show on Earth” cannot be shown while the train is moving for fear of a wreck, as in the film; and the bane of a wild bird in the arena.
None could reason why the restaurant coach called a pie car, other than a connection with food.
I bid goodbye to the crew and a fascinating afternoon in the railroad pie car, but I still wanted a piece of apple pie.
Contact Bill Wundram at 563-383-2249 or email@example.com.