She flew high in the circus and cooked for it, too
‘Circus people eat real food’ just like everyone else, cookbook author says
Life has been a circus for Sarah Chapman.
From the moment she stepped onto a free-swinging trapeze in her early teens, the Sarasota, Florida native was on her way to joining a rarefied, larger family than her own — that of the three-ring, travelling Big Top.
At age 71 and almost four decades after she stepped off that bar a final time, you can find her reengaging with crowds curious about circus life, at this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington. She represents an act the public doesn’t see: the cook who feeds the troupe.
The regimen does not include funnel cakes and meat on a stick.
“Circus people eat real food,” she says, intent on correcting misperceptions. “They want their children to eat healthy.”
The duly noted curves that enhanced her high-flying act have given way to a lean and fit physique she attributes to mindful eating, seniors’ exercise classes and swimming where she lives and works as a personal chef, in Aitkin, Minnesota.
Life had several circuses in store for Chapman, but it was not an easy existence. She didn’t know how to cook when she hit the road as an aerialist doing 14 shows a week. Kitchen inspiration came from a husband more than 30 years her senior and his family; from members of her circus clan; from cookbooks and magazines she gathered; and even from the audience who would watch her balance on her head, at times, some 19 feet in the air.
When the tents folded by 10 p.m. and circus folk began heading toward the next town, Chapman would scout the all-night supermarkets ahead to stock up for an early start. When she cooked for the Roberts Bros Circus in 1999, she prepared daily breakfasts and dinners in a small kitchen space fitted into a tractor-trailer. Meals for the staff of 24 were typically proteinrich, she recalls, and she catered to the Southerners on tour with ham and lima beans. The cook’s goal was to work up enough of a repertoire to avoid repeating the same dishes for a month.
A balancing act of sorts always continued behind the scenes as Chapman tended to her blended family of seven, trained for her act, home-schooled her young daughter, took correspondence courses and cooked between daily shows. Through it all, she managed to collect enough recipes to populate “Simply Sarah: A Circus Girl’s Cookbook,” a slim spiral-bound volume in its fourth printing.
Punctuated with black-andwhite photos of her in action, her offspring and circus-themed chapter headings, the cookbook is really a story of a family and its travels, she says.
Pretty in pink, this is a family recipe from circus cook Sarah Chapman that dates back 140 years. As she writes in the headnote: “When people eat it for the first time, it’s easy to tell by the look on their face that they want a second piece.” She calls it her signature dish.
The frosting is quite light and tends to be absorbed into the cake, so it may be best to assemble the cake shortly before serving.
Make ahead: The cake needs to be refrigerated briefly before serving (to firm up the frosting).
Adapted from “Simply Sarah: A Circus Girl’s Cookbook” (4th Edition, Jumbo Jack’s Cookbooks, 2010).
MAKES 8 TO 10 SERVINGS (ONE 8-INCH LAYER CAKE)
For the cake 8 tablespoons (1 stick) salted butter, at room temperature, plus more for the pans 2 cups flour, plus more for the pans 1½ cups granulated sugar 1 tbsp baking powder 1 teaspoon salt (optional) 1 cup whole milk 2 large eggs For the frosting 1 quart strawberries, hulled, rinsed and patted dry 1 large egg white, at room temperature (see headnote) ¼ tsp cream of tartar 8 tbsp confectioners’ sugar, or more as needed
For the cake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Use a little butter and flour to grease two 8-inch round layer cake pans. (If you have parchment rounds, place one in the bottom of each pan.)
Sift together the flour, granulated sugar, baking powder and the salt, if using, into the bowl of a stand mixer or hand-held electric mixer. Add the butter and milk; beat on medium speed for two minutes, then stop to scrape down the bowl.
Add the eggs; beat on medium speed for three minutes, to form a smooth batter. Divide evenly between the two pans. Bake (middle rack) for 25 to 30 minutes, or until a tester inserted into the centre of the cakes comes out clean and the tops are golden brown. Transfer to a wire rack to cool for five minutes, then remove from the pans to cool completely.
For the frosting: Cut about half the strawberries in half, from top to bottom.
Beat the egg white in the bowl of a stand mixer or hand-held electric mixer on medium speed, then add the cream of tartar. Increase the speed to medium-high speed, beating to form fairly stiff peaks. Stop the motor.
Use a fork to mash four of the smallest remaining strawberries, to yield ¼ cup, then add to the beaten egg white; beat on high speed to incorporate. Reduce the speed to medium; add the confectioners’ sugar 1 tablespoon at a time, to form a soft pink frosting. Briefly beat on high speed to make sure the strawberries are evenly incorporated. If the frosting seems too soft, beat in another tablespoon or two of confectioners’ sugar.
You’ll need to work quickly and efficiently to assemble the cake. Invert one of the cake layers on a plate and discard its parchment, if you used it. Spread about ½ cup of the frosting on top. Cut enough strawberries into slices slightly less than ¼ inch thick to build a single layer of sliced berries on the frosting. Invert the second cake layer atop the berries and discard its parchment, if you used it.
Use the remaining frosting to finish the top and sides of the cake. Arrange the halved strawberries around the bottom of the cake, with their points facing upward.
Cut the remaining strawberries into quarters. Arrange them on top of the cake in a pleasing pattern, cut sides down. Refrigerate for about 15 minutes before serving.
Per serving (based on 10): 360 calories, 5 grams protein, 62 g carbohydrates, 11 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 65 milligrams cholesterol, 110 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fibre, 41 g sugar
Circus cook Sarah Chapman with her “Simply Sarah” cookbook, open to a photo of her performing on a trapeze in 1969.
Strawberry Cake: Pretty in pink, this is a family recipe from circus cook Sarah Chapman that dates back 140 years.