Tigers in the Ringling Bros. circus eat 16 pounds of meat a day, and sometimes their food gets delivered to the wrong place. This can occasionally make food manager Steve Hall, who runs the kitchen for the circus’ humans, a tad jealous.
“They eat really good,” he says.
We’re on a train that’s resting on railroad sidings an in industrial section of Oakland, not far from the Lake Merritt BART Station, a no-man’s-land where the 300 performers and crew members effectively live during their week-plus stay in town. After this, the train will motor to San Jose, and then up to Sacramento. As the performers work about 11 months out of the year, on four-year tours, the train — all 61 cars of it, plus any lawn chairs they’ve got outside their window — is their home. (They have a mailing address in Florida, though.) We’re standing in the center of the train, in what’s known as the Pie Car, which functions as the employee cafeteria, churning out 1,500 meals each week to clowns, lion-tamers, and — of course — the ringmaster himself. These performers have to eat well.
“This is the only artistic craft where mortality is perpetually in the shadows,” Ringmaster Jonathan Lee Iverson says. “I love Meryl Streep, but she’s never walked on a movie said and gone, ‘Hunh, this might be the last time I’m here.’ It’s different for a trapeze artist.”
So we’re tearing into sashimi tuna with a tropical vinaigrette, vegetable potstickers, and chimichurri beef with tortillas. I expect to see a parade of extremely fit, extremely hungry acrobats file in for chow at any point, but as it’s a one-show day, most people are off-site and it’s very quiet. There’s not even a unicyclist gliding down the center of the car, although we do have a clown named Joseph Desoto (who, unsurprisingly, isn’t in clown-face).
“I am a clown, hence the sarcasm,” the otherwise amiable Desoto says. “I’m just excited to eat.”
Children grow up on this “town without a Zip code.” Being largely sheltered from the world outside yet exposed to all different types of people can make for a unique type of engagement with the world. (They have “street smarts in a bubble,” Iverson says.)
And because 29 nationalities are represented on staff during this current tour, the food that’s served is integrated into the kids’ curriculum: They eat something one day and learn about it in school the next. Since most people like comfort food in the vein of what they grew up with, the onus is on the kitchen to get a lot of variety.
“We’re trying to diversify, to add different cultural things,” Hall says. “We’re going to be adding carnitas, Jamaican jerk chicken. On the weekends we do close to 200 [covers]. We just crank it out.”
Living and working in close quarters is not easy. My mind drifts to thinking of the circus the way that Archer depicts a spy outfit: as an ordinary workplace complete with office politics and passive-aggressive emails. I go back for seconds of chimichurri and stare at the framed, vintage posters between the windows. What is H.R. like, mediating squabbles among Cossacks?
But from what I can glean, it’s a pretty happy family. They cook company-wide barbecues — something Iverson describes as “a religion” — a couple times each year.
“The only time we have discord is around the Olympics,” he says.