Roasted Corn with the Bearded Lady of Coney Island

The loneliness of the bearded lady — who does it concern besides the lady herself? No one really, save perhaps a curious soul or two. Journalist Joseph Mitchell was one such soul. In his 1940 piece on Jane Barnell (aka Lady Olga), America’s most famous bearded lady,  he writes that she “occasionally considers herself an outcast and feels that there is something vaguely shameful about the way she makes a living.” Hirsute since infancy, Barnell was put on exhibition shortly after her fourth birthday, when her parents sold her to the Great Orient Family Circus. Her stint with the outfit marked the beginning of a long career, during which she appeared in at least twenty-five circuses and sideshows.

The glitz and glamour of the stage proved short-lived. Tired of circus life, Barnell settled in New York City, Williams reports, working intermittently during the winter months “in the basement sideshow of Hubert’s Museum on West Forty-second Street.” There she met her fourth husband, a carnival barker nineteen years her junior who had a fondness for “dark-blue suits” and “lemon-yellow neckties.” He confessed to greatly cherishing his bearded beloved, believing her “one of the great women of all time.”

Eager to “cook and wash” for her husband, Barnell spends “a lot of time in the kitchen, trying out recipes clipped from newspapers.” Ever beckoning circus life she wishes to ignore “as long as possible because she has grown to like apartment life; it has given her a chance, she says,  really to get acquainted with … her fourth husband, and with Edelweiss, her cat.” Her life follows a simple routine. She smokes “a pack and a half of cigarettes a day” (her only bad habit), and about “once a week she rearranges the furniture in her two small rooms.” On her days off and when the sun is shining “she places a pillow on the sill, rests her elbows on it, and stares for hours into Eighth Avenue.”

She sometimes works in a small dime museum at Coney Island. Despite the long hours — 11 AM to 11 PM on most days — Barnell thinks the position conducive to health, the sea air being “good for her asthma.” And she enjoys the additional perk of ample “buttered roasting ear corn” that is sold in the stands.

Should you also yearn for a simple gustatory pleasure, try one of these three ways of roasting corn from the 1909 cookbook How to Cook Vegetables. It might not produce an ear as irresistible as the one enjoyed by the bearded lady Barnell, but it may afford some small measure of domestic bliss.

Roast Corn

Remove the silks and husks from a dozen ears of corn, rub them with butter, season with pepper and salt, lay in a dripping-pan, and roast, turning frequently so that they may cook evenly. Serve as soon as the ears are brown.

Strip all the husk and silk from green corn and roast the corn on a gridiron over coals, turning it when one side is done. Serve with melted butter, salt, and pepper.

Strip all the husks from the ears except the last layer. Lay the corn in hot wood ashes, cover, and roast until done. Serve with plenty of melted butter.


Baumgarthuber, Christine. Fermented Foods: The History and Science of a Microbiological Wonder. Reaktion Books, 2021.

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