She flew high in the cir­cus and cooked for it, too

‘Cir­cus peo­ple eat real food’ just like every­one else, cook­book au­thor says

The Hamilton Spectator - - FOOD - BON­NIE S. BEN­WICK

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.

Straw­berry Cake

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).


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.

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