You know, it isn’t every day you get invited to a multi-course lunch in the Pie Car. And while I’m not sure I’m ready to declare what we tasted today “The Greatest Meal on Earth,” the food mixed with the stories from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus executive chef Michael Vaughn and his executive sous chef Mark Guzman added up to a satisfying repaste indeed.
With my intrepid friend Almost Veggie (who’d never eaten in any Pie Car either), we started out with a salad of pleasantly bitter greens given crunch and flavor by apples, bleu cheese and pecans. As for the name itself, everyone involved says “Pie Car” refers to the cream pies clowns throw at people on their birthday – but probably goes back as a circus tradition to the Depression, when meat pies were the only protein anybody could afford. The food car simply became known as the Pie Car. Today, with its comfortable booths and wall-mounted flat-screen TV, it is part dining room and part family room to the circus’s 300 employees.
Chef Michael learned to cook in south Louisiana, and that fact is evident in his spicy gumbo of shrimp, chicken and andouille. In the course of a typical day, however, the chefs may find themselves making everything from cheeseburgers and chili to Indian curry and Chinese stirfry. The Ringling Bros. cast comes from all over the world, and so do their food preferences.
South Louisiana also raises its head, and waves its French-Spanish-African flag, in this special combo plate Chef Michael served us. On the left there’s a nifty oven-browned version of crawfish pasta, in a sauce of cream and lots of parmesan and boursin cheese. On the right there’s the chef’s version of jambalaya, generously outfitted with chicken and sausage.
Just when we thought we couldn’t possibly eat anymore, Chef Mark – who wears both his Latin heritage and Chicago birth proudly – made us try his shrimp ceviche. And the dish was so light it was impossible to say no. I was impressed he chopped the shrimp so small, since that kept them from falling off the tortilla chip like bigger pieces. And the fact they were marinated in grapefruit juice, rather than typical lime or lemon, added a layer of sweetness we weren’t expecting at all.