March 2, 2010,
When the Line for Dinner Is a Mile Long By Glenn Collins
Newark, Once upon a time, any self-respecting aerialist or big-top roustabout ordered pie in the Pie Car. Of course. And heaps of fried chicken. Or beef stew with glorious gobbets of fat, swimming with hefty carrots and an armada of bobbing potatoes. Not to mention buckets of strong, steaming java.
But these days, in the Pie Car — the newly renovated $1.2-million, 24-hour-a-day dining facility on the mile-long train of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus — some 350 ladies, gentlemen and children of all ages have actually been known to order salads. Or vegetarian medleys. And, on request mind you, there is decaf.
For the benefit of the news media on Tuesday, Ringling — which long held its trains off limits to visitors — threw open the portals of the Pie Car, as the dining car on the circus train has been forever known.
The 61-car train was stashed away on an obscure railroad siding rimmed by reedy brush and a chain link fence crowned with razor wire.
The idea was to ballyhoo the 140th edition of the Ringling circus, called “Barnum’s Funundrum” in celebration of the 200th anniversary of P.T. Barnum, one of the show’s forbears. It opens at the Prudential Center in Newark on Wednesday night, then segues to the Izod Center in the Meadowlands (March 10), the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum (March 17) and Madison Square Garden (March 25).
The Pie Car is a mobile railroad food-service unit with a heavy-duty kitchen operation to feed hungry circus nomads. That means that sometimes purveyors in each new city have a tough time finding the right railyard — even though the train is endlessly long and hard to miss.
“Sometimes purveyors can’t find us, so I have to drive around until I find them,” said the Pie Car’s 39-year-old executive chef, Michael K. Vaughn, whose title is actually Director of Food and Facility Services since he blends the roles of cook and restaurant owner.
Mr. Vaughn also rules over a mobile 22-foot food-service trailer — called Pie Car Junior — set up in each arena during the Ringling migration, and he and his crew coordinate black-tie receptions, holiday parties and opening-night galas as well. Between the two Pie Cars, Mr. Vaughn’s staff slams out more than 2,500 meals a week.