Never before has the circus combined performances that make audiences’ stomachs drop with recipes that make them grumble.
Circus Harmony, a youth circus group based in St. Louis, is serving up delectable dishes alongside riveting circus performances with their new Interactive Cookbook, set to debut online at noon on March 16.
With a release date specifically chosen to coincide with the anniversary of the COVID-19 shutdown, the digital cookbook will feature more than 40 recipes available for free on the Circus Harmony website. Recipes will be displayed side-by-side video recordings of the students performing fun, circus-skilled adaptations of the cooking process.
The recipes, including everything from breakfast to dessert, are chosen by Circus Harmony members and feature some of their family favorite, tried-and-tested dishes. Others, however, are straight from the imagination of the young circus members.
Jessica Hentoff, the 65-year-old artistic/executive director of Circus Harmony, is the brains behind the unique cookbook idea, which seems to be a direct reflection of herself — high-energy, with a million things going on.
In a phone interview about the project, she was interrupted at times by the squawking of her pet parrot and the knocking of her next door neighbor, who wanted to ask if she knew there was a man wandering around her property (she did not). Undeterred, Hentoff explained hard work and immense creativity that went into the creation of the cookbook.
“Some of it is very bizarre — let’s just say it,” she says.
Hentoff gives examples that include her coworker’s famous hair trick, her pets’ role in the circus acts and chartreuse pickles. And she recounts a chef, a slice of pizza and a monkey riding unicycles for their St. Louis thin-crust pizza recipe.
During a guacamole-based performance, a boy dressed as a chef tries to whack another boy dressed as a mole. (Get it, guac-a-mole?) For a microwave mug cake recipe, a student does acrobatics edited to look like she’s performing inside the microwave. A costumed turkey (along with his dad, also dressed like a turkey) promote a tetrazzini recipe by taking to the slack wire.
“It’s like kitchen-creative to the max,” says Hentoff.
Circus Harmony students, ranging from ages eight to eighteen, were each allowed to include as many as two recipes and accompanying acts in the book. Many of the acts are filmed inside the students’ kitchens with help from their families. A few stunts were performed in their circular ring in the City Museum.
While each student was allowed to choose their own recipes, the entire Circus Harmony team reviewed the options to decide which performances would best suit the storytelling and to ensure there would be a variety of dishes.
“With kids, you could end up with all chocolate chip cookies basically,” Hentoff says.
Oddly enough, the cookbook does not include chocolate chip cookies, though “we do have a delicious chocolate chip scone recipe,” she assures. “These recipes are … what the kids wanted to put in, so I wouldn’t use it to go on a diet.”
The students mostly performed acts that were already within their skill sets, though some learned new performances just to showcase their recipe.
The featured music is from previous shows, supplemented with some original scores written by their music director, Jeffrey Carter. Hentoff credits video editor and coach Laura Lippert for the patience to edit 40 amateur-filmed videos from their students.
Lippert herself graces the pages of the cookbook with her savory oatmeal recipe. In her accompanying performance, she hangs heavy bags of oats from her braids and swings them in circles, a variation of a stunt she performed with chairs in 2019 on the Late, Late Show with James Corden.
Carter also contributed his chartreuse-colored pickle recipe. Three students donning lime-green leotards perform as acrobatic pickles, ready to be served to their viewers.
Hentoff’s dog, Maple, similarly basks in the spotlight in an enchilada recipe. Maple jumps through hoops and performs tricks, ending the video by rolling up in a blanket that looks like a tortilla. Hentoff’s noisy parrot also makes a cameo, appearing in their waffle recipe’s performance.
The timing for the cookbook is no coincidence. The release date is meant to celebrate 365 days of the American shutdown.
Circus Harmony performed about 700 shows a year between the students and coaches in a pre-COVID era. While they now resort to six-feet-apart circuses outside and some performances over Zoom, they felt that the joy in their audiences has never been the same as before. The cookbook is part of changing that.
Still, for Hentoff, there is just a hint of resentment in this anniversary.
“We remember leaving the ring, I have a picture of the ring as we turned the lights off. We thought it was two weeks,” she says. “Here we are 51, soon to be 52 weeks later, thank you so much Governor Parson, you are such – nevermind, that’s a whole other story.”
Just like speaking with Hentoff, viewers will never know what to expect when flipping through the digital pages of the Circus Harmony Interactive Cookbook (except, of course, the audible sound of a page turning, “a little detail that I adore,” she says).
Though, Hentoff explains, viewers are promised one thing: “This is totally something unlike anything else you’ve ever seen, for circus or for cooking.”
“Somebody call the Food Network,” she says, “they should be covering this.”
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