Big Top Performers Dine Well


April 26, 1992|By ROB KASPER

To coax the family of Italian circus performers out of Verona and under the American big top, the mother of the clan had to be promised that she would have a full-size refrigerator in her family's circus train car.

"Kitchen," the mama explained, "is very important to Italians."

Bulgarian performers prize their strong coffee. So much so that on Saturdays -- when they twirl hoops around their bodies three times a day and good coffee counts -- they take the espresso machine with them from their train car to the show site.

The cast of high-stepping dancers gets visits from a Candy Fairy who passes out treats before show time, but never on Friday. That is diet day, the day before Saturday, when the dancers have to step on the scales as bosses check their weight.

The head clown often eats in the "pie car," the railroad dining car that services the traveling group of circus performers. The clown also has a "cherry pie," which in circus argot is not a dessert but a second job. Nowadays the clown gets money for his second circus job. But in the old days, extra circus work was rewarded with food, hence the term "cherry pie."

The troupe of Chinese bicyclists brought their own cook from the mainland. But they have developed a taste for American beer.

These are some of the insights into the world of circus eats that I picked up when I spent an evening talking to a handful of performers of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The circus was finishing a stand in the Washington Armory. This week it will make the jump to Baltimore, where it will begin an 11-day run, April 30 through May 10 at the Baltimore Arena.

When I spoke with Lucina "Mama" Larible, head of the Italian clan, she emphasized that a big, well-presented meal was the highlight of her family's day. That, she said, is why she wanted the big refrigerator, not the usual, compact version, in her family's train car.

Now on "load-in day," the day the circus arrives in a new town, Mama dispatches family members out to search for prosciutto, Italian cheese and fresh seafood to fill the big fridge. In Chicago, she reported, they even found Italian truffles. Could, she asked, they be found in Baltimore? I wasn't sure.

Her son, David, the show's headliner, is both a clown and an acrobat. Her husband, Eugenio, once balanced on his head on the trapeze bar while juggling their young daughter, Vivien, with his feet. Vivien has since grown up and now stands on her own head, which, she explained, is one reason she had no sauce with her lobster and a mere five pieces of tortellini at her mother's recent Easter feast.

After the meal she had two more shows to do, which Vivien said meant that "My stomach would be upside down."

The Italians said they missed drinking the strong coffee of their native land.

So, too, did Anka Kehaiova, a Bulgarian, whose two daughters, Dessy, 20, and Gery, 14, spin hoops on their bodies, up to 75 hoops per body. To Mrs. Kehaiova, most American coffee had the flavor of "brown water." So she made her own, stronger coffee in the family's espresso machine.

A veteran of some 20 years of circus life, she said she had learned to fix dishes -- like skinned chicken stuffed with paprika-flavored rice -- that could be cooked in the afternoon, then reheated at midnight. That is often when her daughters and her husband, Guergana, finish performing.

Midnight is also when dancers like Zita Wenzel dine. After the show, Ms. Wenzel said she likes to reward herself with some brie and wine, which she prepares in a communal kitchen in the circus train. Since the circus has a once-a-week weigh-in for dancers, she said she feasts on brie, and the occasional pieces of candy given her by fellow dancers, early in the week, well before the visit to the scales.

David DeDera, the head clown who walks in the opening parade on 20-foot-tall stilts, told me that one way to spot veteran clowns was to watch them eat.

The good ones, he said, can eat greasy food, even pizza, without getting any food on their grease paint. When the beginners eat, he said, their makeup runs.

Since I speak no Chinese, I wasn't able to interview the bicyclists. But their interpreter, Jianbo Gao, told me a few tidbits about the troupe's eating habits.

He said that like most groups of traveling Chinese performers, this one came with its own cook. He said that instead of coffee or tea, these Chinese cyclists drink rice soup for breakfast.

And he said the troop comes from the city of Harbin, which is noted for its beer. Whenever the Chinese cyclists arrive in a new town, one of the first things they do, he said, is find a cheap source of American suds. They haven't picked up much English, he said, but most have learned one new word: "Budweiser."

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