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Clowning in the Kitchen

Katie Schroeder makes feeding a circus seem as easy as pie


Published June 22, 2011 at 6:21 a.m.

Just as Katie Schroeder is about to serve dinner, it occurs to her that she has orange juice left over from breakfast. “We’ll make an orange-creamsicle-smoothie-slushy thing,” she exclaims excitedly to her staff of two cooks. A blender full of OJ, soy milk, ice and a liberal sprinkling of cinnamon later, Schroeder has a treat fit for a king. Or a clown, or an acrobat.

And acrobats will be consuming this night’s wholesome but flavorful dinner of chile verde enchiladas filled with seasoned beef. Schroeder is the head cook for Circus Smirkus, a tented spectacle starring performers ages 10 to 18.

Last week was the first of three weeks of training for the “troupers” of Smirkus, as the aerialists, jugglers and others are known. They’ll endure two more weeks of rehearsals from 8:30 a.m to 6 p.m. before they take the show on the road. That means packing up a caravan of 26 vehicles and touring the Northeast for seven weeks, yukking it up for audiences of 750 in a European-style, one-ring tent.

One of the most important vehicles on Circus Smirkus’ tour is the “pie car” — Schroeder’s domain. The tiny trailer’s goofy name belies the serious business of feeding 80 people three meals a day, including 29 hungry troupers, their trainers and other circus crew.

That means proffering ultra-nutritious fare to hungry mouths from 14 states and several countries, including Switzerland and Morocco. Schroeder must feed troupers who are vegan and gluten free, and even one girl who lacks the enzyme to digest the sugars in fruit. Despite those stringent requirements, the pie car staff’s biggest challenge may be the car itself.

An observer who tries to find a corner of the trailer out of the way of the “high-octane” action, as Schroeder describes it, quickly learns how tight the quarters are. This is no double-wide. The car has room for a refrigerator, an oven, a range top, a sink and not much else. Somehow, though, working with pots and pans sized for a home kitchen, the three young women inside make it work.

Schroeder, with her curly blond hair, array of piercings and appropriately clownish red kneesocks with multicolored polka dots, is the oldest at 25. Perhaps it’s youthful energy that carries her through days that begin at 5:30 a.m., when she prepares breakfast for 7:30 service, and don’t end until the pie car is prepped for breakfast the next day, around 8 p.m.

The shape of the pie car’s days changes when it starts moving. At each stop on the tour, troupers are put up in local homes. Their two-day “parents” are given a list of their favorite foods and contracted to provide them with a daily hearty breakfast and postshow snack. That takes some pressure off the pie car, though, from the troupers’ point of view, their hosts’ attention to personal preferences can backfire. Head counselor Willow Yonika, herself a Smirkus performer from 1999 to 2001, recalls a fellow trouper who was served mint-chocolate-chip ice cream every single night of the tour, based on his request list. “It wasn’t his favorite by the time the tour was over,” she says.

While the pie car doesn’t need to supply troupers with every meal on tour, it still has crew members to feed. Schroeder makes sandwiches until 2 a.m. on nights when the tents are torn down. She’s back up making breakfast early on “jump days” when the whole setup process starts again at a new location.

Keeping the tiny trailer stocked for seven weeks of touring is no easy matter, but Schroeder says she savors the challenge. “I really enjoy the tour,” she says. “It keeps you on your toes. It’s definitely not standard to pick up and unpack a whole kitchen every two days.”

Before leaving Greensboro, the home base of Smirkus, Schroeder packs the pie car’s standard-sized home refrigerator as full as she can and hopes for the best. She tries to work with local purveyors at tour stops who are willing to deliver at unconventional times. Community donations also help feed the circus. Last year, one trouper’s father sent a share from his CSA when Smirkus landed in town. La Panciata bakery of Northfield recently donated a large supply of bread to the organization. That was a special boon, says Schroeder, because “we go through toast like it’s going out of style.”

Schroeder cares about serving as much local food as possible. “It’s great when we have that really local stuff, making it like you’re at home,” she says. “Our main goals are to get the food out healthy and in the right quantity, but also getting the love and soul of the food. [Local] helps us accomplish that goal even more easily.” Salads containing Pete’s Greens produce from nearby Craftsbury are available at almost every meal served in Greensboro. Schroeder also uses Vermont maple syrup as a sweetener.

Getting creative with limited resources is nothing new to Schroeder. Though she says she doesn’t specifically seek out food-related jobs, cooking has played a major role in her nomadic lifestyle. She honed her culinary chops feeding kids at summer camps and academics on field studies. “The great thing about food is, everyone eats,” she says. “There are always opportunities to meet cool people and see beautiful places.”

Schroeder was traveling abroad last year when she realized she would need a job when she returned to the States that summer. Thinking it would be fun to work at a circus, she did an online search. Circus Smirkus was the first result, and she joined the pie car as a cook. When the head cook chose not to return for the 2011 season, Schroeder got the job.

Luckily, when it came to the job’s greatest challenge, she was already an old hand. “For me,” Schroeder says, “the biggest thing was learning how to look at coolers and saying, ‘What can we do with this?’” Before heading to Greensboro this year, Schroeder gathered all the cookbooks she could fit in the trailer, ranging from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian to Guy Fieri Food: Cookin’ It, Livin’ It, Lovin’ It. She also hit the website and printed out 600 of her favorite recipes. They now live in a binder, divided by ingredients.

Usually, though, dishes end up being improvised. “We pull the cookbooks from the shelf — but we don’t have this,” says Schroeder, pantomiming the terror of a cook realizing she lacks the proper ingredients to make a recipe. “We’ll make it without that and say, ‘That’s the pie-car version.’ A lot of this is just figuring out how to make it work.”

“Making it work” entails providing plenty of sustenance to help performers replenish the calories they burn during their strenuous days, but no fatty comfort food is on the menu. Some recent Smirkus meals have included fiddlehead risotto, sweet-chili-and-coconut tofu and chicken paprikash. And that was just lunch. The midday meal at Smirkus tends to be heartier than dinner, to give troupers energy for the rest of the day’s training.

Last week’s enchiladas, baked in tangy tomatillo sauce, were a typical dinner. Schroeder and her staff filled the flour tortillas with beef or mashed homemade black-bean burgers and cut them into small servings, leaving plenty of plate space for sides. Those included sautéed kale, broccoli rabe, mustard greens and baby chard, homemade salsa fresca, and colorful, burstingly fresh corn, tomato and cilantro salad with lemon-lime dressing.

“One of the challenges is, kids aren’t used to these spices and ingredients. They’re used to comfort foods at home,” says Yonika, who makes sure all of her charges consume enough food to power them through the day. However, she adds, Smirkus has no problem with picky eaters. Troupers learn to love the pie car’s sophisticated grub.

Emma Rogers, 15, and Al Mireault, 17, are among the troupers who rave about the pie car. “I love it!” says Rogers, her big eyes lighting up.

“It’s typically scrumptious,” adds Mireault, a third-year juggler and acrobat from Waterbury Center.

“The oatmeal this morning was the best — blueberry crisp oatmeal!” exclaims Rogers, an acrobat and aerialist from New Hampshire.

“You wish you had it,” Mireault tells a visiting reporter. “Did you have the smoothie? It’s so good, I’m almost crying.”

What Mireault doesn’t know is how, performing its own version of a high-wire act, the pie car staff prepared his favorite on the fly.

Circus Smirkus will have its first performances of the year on Sunday, July 3, at 1 and 6 p.m. at the Circus Barn in Greensboro. $15 for kids; $19 for adults. Check for future tour dates.