Monday, November 30, 2009

Thanksgiving Soup

Posted by Bruce Miller
During the first three years of Theatre IV (May 1975 – April 1978), our new nonprofit company netted enough revenue to pay all its actors, directors, designers etc., except for Phil and me. No one was paid much, mind you, but everyone received something. Phil and I worked for three years as 40-hour per week volunteers. We earned our living, mainly, acting and waiting tables at Swift Creek Mill Playhouse (now Swift Creek Mill Theatre) and the Haymarket Dinner Theatre. Each of us worked at whichever dinner theatre cast us in a show.

The Mill was the nicest place to wait tables, and if you arrived early, you could eat Mary’s wonderful cooking for $3 a dinner—a super deal. Mary was the chef at the Mill in those early days, and she was also co-owner Betty Callahan’s aunt. There were always quarter or half loaves of delicious Sally Lund bread left on customers’ tables when the meal was over, and the Mill let waiters take these uneaten remnants home with them. I got fat on many a sandwich made with leftover Sally Lund bread from the Mill.

The Haymarket had fewer perks, but it was the more lucrative place to work as a waiter. That’s because the waiters at the Haymarket collected the cost of the theatre tickets, dinner and bar at intermission. Your customers had the chance to see you on stage in Act I, and then you presented them with a bill that included everything. Frequently they would tip you 10% to 15% on the entire bill, including the cost of the theatre tickets.

Even in the mid-70s, I once made just over $100 in tips one night at the Haymarket.

At the Mill, the only money the waiters collected from the customer was for the bar tab, and customers would frequently leave the 15% tip only on that smaller amount. Plus, you collected that amount before curtain, so your customers had yet to have the opportunity to see your work on stage.

Phil and I acted some at Barksdale and the Barn during those years, but both of those theatres employed mostly waiters who were not actors in the show, so waiting gigs there were hard to come by.

We also worked during the first two summers at Kings Dominion. Kings Dominion and Theatre IV both opened at the same time. The personnel department at KD recruited performers from VCU to work the shows in the park, and cash control officers from the University of Richmond Law School. Somehow we heard about the U of R gig, and went to KD to apply.

We told them we were from U of R, neglecting to mention that we were not from the Law School. They hired us anyway. We’d arrive at work many nights at midnight, after completing our gigs as actor/waiters, and then count money till about 3 or 4 a.m. On weekends, we walked around the park pretending to be tourists, but popping into the back of each store and restaurant we’d pass to collect several thousands of dollars and then walk it back to cash control headquarters. Sometimes we’d be strolling through the park carrying upwards of $20 K in a plastic KD shopping bag.

During the 75-76 and 76-77 school years, we also directed (me) and choreographed (Phil) the shows at Collegiate School (mostly evening work). I’m blessed to have friends today who were my students during those two great years.

Lest you think this all sounds noble, be assured we were having the time of our lives. We were young bachelors, sharing a Grove Ave. apartment which also served as Theatre IV’s office, without the burdens of mortgages, car payments or college funds eating away at our meagre earnings. In many ways, I felt fewer money worries then than I have at any time since.

It was in those early years that I began my fall ritual of making Thanksgiving Soup, a ritual I continue to this day. The recipe was one I was given by my dad, Curt Miller, who grew up dirt poor on a Mennonite farm in Pennsylvania.

Turkey is one of the least expensive meats you can buy, back then in 1975 and still today. Like my dad before me, I cook a Thanksgiving turkey for the main event, and then on the day after, carve off whatever remaining meat is easy to get to, and then boil the turkey carcass and unused giblets to make soup.

Thanksgiving Soup is delicious, and really gratifying if you’re in a waste-not want-not frame of mind. It freezes well, and can provide many a super-cheap and inviting meal for months to come. I’ve often heard that the best way to give thanks is to be a responsible steward of the many blessings you receive. In that case, Thanksgiving Soup is aptly named.

The recipe is far from original, I’m sure. But as a family tradition, it means a lot to me. And it always reminds me of the early days of Theatre IV.

Curt Miller’s Thanksgiving Soup

To make the stock, break the turkey carcass into pieces and toss it and the giblets into a big soup pot. Add water until it just covers the turkey carcass. To the pot add 2 chopped carrots, two chopped onions, 2 stalks of chopped celery (leaves and all). Chop everything into large pieces. Toss in 2 cloves of minced garlic, a few shakes of salt, some basil and a bay leaf or two. Bring the whole thing to a boil, and let it continue on a low boil over medium heat, covered, for two to three hours.

Pour the stock through a colander into a large bowl—I usually get about 12 cups of thick liquid. Let it cool for a couple hours, and then skim off the fat (there isn’t that much).

Let the turkey cool, then sort through the bones and pick out all the meat. I usually get another four cups of meat, even after carving off all the easy stuff before cooking the carcass.

Throw away the bones and the vegetables, unless you want to save them for another use.

I usually freeze half the stock—about 6 cups. With the other half, I make my first batch of Thanksgiving Soup.


6 cups turkey stock
¼ of a large onion, chopped small, a generous half cup
3 peeled carrots, chopped into thick pennies
2 stalks celery, chopped into ¼ inch pieces, about ¾ cup
1 ½ cups cooked or frozen green beans
1 cup cooked long grain rice
1 can mushrooms, stems and pieces, 8 oz drained
2 cups cut-up turkey (about half of what came from the carcass)
2 cloves garlic, chopped small
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons flour

In the soup pot, melt the margarine and cook the onions and garlic for about 10 minutes over medium heat, stirring.

Add the can of mushrooms, liquid and all. Add the chopped carrots, celery, and green beans and continue cooking for about 5 minutes, stirring.

Add the flour and cook for another 3 minutes, stirring.

Add the turkey stock, about 12 shakes of basil, salt and pepper, and continue cooking over low/medium heat for about an hour.

Add the cooked rice and turkey and bring to a boil. Once it’s boiling, turn it off and serve.

Makes 6 servings.

--Bruce Miller


philcrosby said...

Bruce --

What wonderful memories.

You will be pleased to know that I take the turkey carcass from my family dinner home every year and make a similar soup ... also a holdover from those leaner days. (And yes, I was leaner too!)

Thanks for sharing!

Jody Strickler said...

I love this blog! Going to get the turkey out of the refrigerator and get started...

Anonymous said...

OH BOY ! Does this sound good! you can bet ya I am gonna try this!
Jeanette Blaylock

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed reading the stories and the recipe (and plan to try it with the next turkey in the fridge).

Bruce, you said that you and Phil worked with the students at Collegiate in the mid-70s. I saw several student shows there about that time (while attending another HS), and particularly remember a wonderful production of 'Carousel." Even now, I can almost see -- in my memory -- the beautifully staged Carousel Waltz opening. Was that one of your shows?

Rosie B.

Bruce Miller said...

Hey Rosie -- Yes, Carousel was my first musical at Collegiate, and I was very proud of the staging during what most productions consider to be the Overture. Years later, the London / Broadway revival did a very similar staging, which made me feel pretty good. Thanks for remembering it. That too makes me feel pretty good.

Anonymous said...

Do we know...update this blog a little bit?