Until the "Greatest Show on Earth" ended earlier this year, the circus was a place for feats of skill, exotic beasts, hilarious pratfalls and colorful treats. Cotton candy, circus peanuts and popcorn were all a part of the big top experience. And, if you believe the legends, pink lemonade was also invented at the circus. One of the supposed pink lemonade origin stories is rather tame. But the other... is not. It also involves creepy clowns.
The earliest written evidence of lemonade—defined as lemon juice mixed with sugar—dates to medieval Egypt. Persian poet Nasir-I-Khusraw wrote about daily life in 11th century Egypt and referenced "qatarmizat," which was freshly squeezed lemon juice mixed with sugar cane—basically ancient lemonade. Business records from the time also reveal that bottles of qatarmizat were available throughout the markets of Cairo. The first recipes appear in 13th century Arabic cookbooks and the Genghis Khan-led Mongols are thought to have enjoyed an alcoholic version of qatarmizat, a sort of medieval hard lemonade.
By the mid-17th century, lemonade had made its way to Europe and it was particularly popular on the streets of France with vendors selling it by the cup. It soon became an American favorite due to the abundance of available sugarcane. In Mary Randolph's The Virginia Housewife, considered the first truly American cookbook, there's a recipe for iced lemonade (though, it also includes eggs and seems like more of a custard). In the 1870s, lemonade in America took on new meaning thanks to the temperance movement. The sugary tart drink was encouraged as an alternative to the "moral evils" of alcohol. In fact, First Lady Lucy Webb Hayes was given the mocking nickname "Lemonade Lucy" because of her insistence on banning alcohol from the White House.
It was about this time when lemonade was just becoming popular in the US, that pink lemonade was supposedly accidentally invented. The first legend revolves around Henry E. Allott, a famed circus promoter and, later, a feared gambler nicknamed "Bunk Allen." He was so well-known that, when he died in Chicago in 1912, he had obituaries in the New York Times and the Washington Post. According to a 1913 restaurant trade handbook, it was 1872 and Allott was only 14 years old when he had a happy accident. He was in charge of both the candy and lemonade concessions for a circus traveling around the country when he made a life-altering mistake. Either by his own clumsiness or someone else's, he dropped a whole container of red cinnamon candies into a vat of freshly-made lemonade. Within moments, the yellow-hued beverage was stained reddish-pink—a similar color to clown pants. But, as Smithsonian Magazine put it, Allott knew that the "show must go on" and he sold the pink-tinted lemonade. Its sales outperformed the original. From that point on, pink lemonade became one of the circus' best-selling treats.
There's little doubt that, as far as origins go, this tale is a bit apocryphal. For years prior, lemonade was being sold with watermelon, strawberry and raspberry, which also would have given it a reddish pink hue. But Allott's story is both nice and fun. The other prevailing legend about pink lemonade's creation however, is neither nice nor fun.
This version of the story dates pink lemonade's origins to 1857. In his biography, famed lion tamer George Conklin claims that it was his brother Pete who first turned lemonade pink. At the time, Pete worked concessions and was a tumbler with well-known promoter Jerry Mabie's show when one day he was asked to take over as a clown. Pete happily obliged, did a fine job and asked (rightfully) for a clown's pay. Mabie refused. So, Pete quit, took his lemonade concession with him and proceeded to follow the circus around selling his own lemonade. He did well for himself, but one day he ran out of water. In a panic and with the line of people increasing, he barraged into a tent of an old clown friend who was wringing out his red tights into a bucket of water. The cheap dye had left the water pinkish-red. So, Pete grabbed the bucket and offered the impatient crowd "strawberry-lemonade."
No matter if it was Henry Allott and his cinnamon candies, Pete Conklin serving people a bucket of dirty circus clown water or neither, the circus (and its clowns) certainly deserves credit for popularizing pink lemonade.
This story originally appeared on Foodandwine.com.