2018 was the last time I sent out a blog post. (If you read to the bottom, I’ll tell you why). But now there’s some Polarity news! Polarity Ensemble Books is coming back to life with the idea to serve a small collective of authors. The first new novel, now in the editing process, is a comedy set in the Chicago storefront theatre scene (something we know a little about from our days of Polarity Ensemble Theatre). We hope to have it out by the end of the year.
In the meantime, we still have a few of our earlier books available, and we’d love to have you read them–and please, please, please leave a review on Amazon. This makes a huge difference in the books being seen by others. We have an extremely limited advertising budget.
Today only, the “charmed and romantic” VISIONS OF ANNA is free on Amazon. We really want you to leave a review! If you’ve already read it, grab a free copy anyway and leave a review. Then Amazon will mark your review as a confirmed purchaser.
The futuristic dystopian detective thriller, BODY MORTGAGE, originally published by Penguin Books, is on sale for $2.99. Chicago private eye Gregory Blake attempts to protect a client facing foreclosure on his organs for transplants to the wealthy.
So, I promised to tell you about the lack of blog posts. One of the last posts I wrote was called A Novelist’s Guide to Relieving Grief. You can see it at that link, if you like. The title originally said Depression rather than Grief. If you let too much unrelieved grief build up, I suggested, it can lead to depression. Anyway, I had a couple people write to me complaining that I had no business or qualifications to be writing about depression, which is a medical condition. Well, maybe not, although I did title it “A Novelist’s Guide” not a psychiatrist’s guide. And the article described a ritual I’d found helpful to me, which I thought might be helpful to others.
The emails came from just two people, but they just kept coming. It was amazing to me how heated they were. And it kind of put me off writing blog posts.
So, maybe it’s time to get over that. What do you think?
David Auburn’s PROOF is a wonderful, Pulitzer- and Tony-winning script that was made into the hit 2005 movie starring Gweneth Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins. I’ll be playing the Anthony Hopkins role in a heartfelt production at the Skokie Theatre. We’ve got a great cast. It’s going to be a fine production. And the Skokie Theatre is a super-comfortable place to see a show. Nice seats. Cocktails. Plenty of free parking. CTA Yellow Line station (Oakton stop) nearby. You can’t beat it. Plus you get $5 off tickets with the promotional code: richard. Warning: It only runs 3 weeks. I hope to see you there.
(Poster image copyright Miramax Films).
Horrifying Tale Rereleased on Halloween
A newly revised edition of my dystopian detective thriller, BODY MORTGAGE, originally published by Penguin Books USA and Headline House UK comes out on Halloween and will be available for purchase at the Skokie Theatre during our intermission. Chicago private eye Gregory Blake attempts to protect a client facing foreclosure on his organs for transplants to the wealthy. Saving this man’s life puts him at odds with the most powerful people in the city–and the most dangerous. It’s a gritty thriller in a nightmare America where human parts are worth more than the whole. (My novels are also available at amazon.com).
Thanks for reading!
Richard Engling is an actor and writer and author of VISIONS OF ANNA, a novel about healing the wounds of grief, setting a troubled soul to rest, and finding redemption in love. To learn more about VISIONS OF ANNA, visit Amazon. To read more posts like this, subscribe to Richard’s newsletter.
How much of your time do you spend in sorrow? How much is too much? At what point do you take action?
Everybody gets sad. Everyone has to deal with grief. Many people tip over from sorrow into depression. Usually it passes. But it feels horrible while you’re in it.
Life never stops keeps feeding us the stuff of grief. Friends and loved ones get sick and die. We lose jobs. Projects go bad. We get a new boss, and he or she sucks. Love affairs end. A friend betrays us. We thought we’d be doing better in our career by now. In our relationships by now. In our general living conditions by now. Maybe (like me) you work in one of the arts. You deal with rejections and disappointment. Our careers never match our ambitions. Some of our friends and colleagues become so overwhelmed, they take their own lives. We feel that loss. We feel the guilt that we didn’t save them. We feel the grief that they’ll never come back.
Sometimes the grief buries us like a wave crashing on the beach. Sometimes the sorrow seeps up and up until we realize we are over our heads in it. We have to take action. But that’s when action is hardest to take. We just feel like withdrawing from the world. We stay huddled in our cocoon of isolating pain.
There is no avoiding grief. It’s part of life. Some people get a heavier dose of it than others. And some people are more sensitive to it than others. However, there are ways to relieve it.
Tending to your mental health ought to be a practice, like diet and exercise. We know we will live happier and healthier with a sensible diet and regular exercise. Taking care of our mental health is the third leg of the stool that stabilizes our well-being. There are lots of ways to do it. In the upcoming newsletters I will talk about a variety. You don’t have to do them all. The best idea is to try them out and see which work the best for you. And then make a practice of them. If you can get others to commit to doing them with you, so much the better. Communing with people over your collective well-being is one of the best things you can do for your mental health. And you can help each other stick with the practice.
But let me give you one practice you can try today. You can do it on our own or with friends or family. But I urge you to try it as soon as possible. Procrastination kills good intents.
This is a salt water purification based on a ritual I learned from reading THE SPIRAL DANCE by Starhawk many years ago. It comes from a Wiccan practice, but you don’t have to share any of the beliefs of Wiccans for this to work for you. The ritual activates your psyche in a cleansing way no matter what your beliefs.
You need five things to make this work: source of flowing water, a cup, salt, a knife, and a place to sit. The ideal source of flowing water might be a stream through a forest where you can sit in privacy. However, the water flowing from your kitchen or bathroom sink can work perfectly well. The ideal cup would be a chalice that was dedicated to your ritual practice. You probably don’t have one, right? So pick something that has some meaning to you. Maybe you have a teacup that belonged to your grandmother, or a cup you’ve had since you were a baby. (Can a plastic sippy cup work? If it reminds you of the love of your mother, yes!). Or even your favorite coffee mug.
Stand (or sit) by the flowing water (even if it is just the water flowing from the faucet) and visualize this as the water flowing from the source of life—water that allows you to keep living, that feeds your body and soul, that cleanses you, that keeps you healthy—and that flows back into the nature, carrying nutrients that feeds life downstream, forever flowing and giving life. Truly visualize that flow of water as a flow of life that includes you. Give up any self-consciousness or embarrassment and let yourself feel it. Then put your chalice into the flow of life-giving, health-giving water and fill it to a comfortable height, maybe ¾ full.
Dip your knife into the salt. The ideal knife is one you use strictly for ritual purposes. (We’ll talk more about things to do with your knife later). The ideal salt would be sea salt. But don’t let the ideal keep you from the good. Use what salt you have. Use a utensil that has some meaning to you. A pocket knife you’ve had for years. A silverware knife you inherited from your parents. A knife from your everyday flatware, for that matter. The important thing is to commit to what you are doing. Fill each thing you do with personal meaning, and the ritual will work.
Scoop up some of the salt with the knife and stir it into the water. As it is dissolving, recite the following: “This is the water of the sea, from which all life emerged. This is the water of the womb, from which I was born. This is the water of my blood, that keeps me alive.” The more you can feel and believe those words, the better. It is totally okay to feel like you are pretending, but go as fully from pretending to believing as you can.
When the salt is fully dissolved (and when you feel you’ve recited the incantation sufficiently), set down the knife. Seat yourself comfortably, and hold the chalice to your heart. Close your eyes, and let your griefs and disappointments and pain flow into the water. Remember them specifically and then let them flow into the water. If you feel it making you weep, go ahead and weep. All the better. Let it flow into the water. Take your time. Let yourself feel it fully and release it into the water. The water wants it. And you will feel better when you let those harsh emotions flow away. Take as much time as you need. And realize too that you do not need to heal your entire life in this one sitting. This is a practice to return to again and again. There is no failure. Just let as much of your grief and pain flow into the water as you can.
If you are sitting there and nothing is happening and you are thinking this whole thing is stupid, then reflect on that: Here you are, you have so much sorrow stored up in you, and you cannot even let it go. Feel the deep sorrow of THAT, and let that flow into the water, and that might help you start to let go of the rest.
When you are ready, rise and be grateful to the water. Stand by the stream, river, or turn the faucet back on and stand by the sink. Slowly pour the water into the flowing stream and say: “I release these griefs to nourish the life downstream.” Repeat it as you let the water slowly flow out of your chalice into the stream. Visualize all that you have released feeding the downstream life, just like cow manure and worm shit and bat guano make the finest fertilizers to nourish plant life. There is something of our grief, ritually given, that feeds the spirit world. And that cleansing us. It is like the great poet Robert Bly said: “It’s hard to grasp how much generosity / Is involved in letting us go on breathing, / When we contribute nothing valuable but our grief.”
At the end of the ritual, put the your tools away. Perhaps you will dedicate these items exclusively to ritual work in the future. Or maybe you will seek out other items to use exclusively for ritual in the coming days. As you do this, express gratitude for whatever you have experienced.
I’ve picked up many ritual practices over my lifetime, starting with an intense Catholic upbringing. I have been attending the annual week-long Minnesota Men’s Conference since 1995. Robert Bly started and led the Conference for many years and its teachers have included psychologists, poets, and ritual leaders, including shamanic teachers from Africa, from Central American, and North American Native medicine people. The teaching, work, and rituals there have often dealt with grief.
I’ll get into more in the future, and I’ll also share some of the fiction I’m writing, some thoughts on Chicago theatre, and probably some essays from my kitchen (I love cooking).
Richard Engling is an actor and writer and author of VISIONS OF ANNA, a novel about healing the wounds of grief, setting a troubled soul to rest, and finding redemption in love. To learn more about VISIONS OF ANNA, visit Amazon. To read more posts like this, subscribe to Richard’s newsletter.
What is it like to be dead? That’s one of the mysteries explored in the play, Anna in the Afterlife, companion piece to my novel Visions of Anna. In the play, novelist Matthew Harken finds himself in an afterlife world where he’s not quite alive and not quite dead. While his body lingers in a coma, Matthew must decide whether or not to return to the living. As he learns to navigate the complicated world of the afterlife, he is joined by friends who have passed on–including his dear friend and fellow novelist, Anna Toyevsky, who took her own life and has split into three separate beings.
When we produced Anna in the Afterlife at Polarity Ensemble Theatre, the director and actors asked me for some notes on how the Afterlife of the play worked. It had many similarities to the world Matthew entered in the ritual with shaman Tony Cappelli in my novel, Visions of Anna.
The afterlife world I created also had a great deal in common with the world we enter in our dreams. Just as some people can learn to become “lucid” and navigate their dream world, more experienced inhabitants of the afterlife can navigate the world by focusing their thoughts. They think of a moment or a location, and then are able to access it.
If a person enters the afterlife under certain types of trauma, like Anna with her suicide, they may enter with their memories wiped away and have to rebuild them. Matthew enters the afterlife with this same kind of amnesia and must rebuild his memories.
The afterlife is a universe with many parts. The lowliest residents are the ghosts. These traumatized souls remain in the realm of the living, often not actually understanding they are dead and mystified why it is so difficult to get the attention of the living.
The next level of souls have advanced away from the world of the living, but they are stuck in memories from their lives, helplessly repeating variations on the same disasters for centuries.
The following level are able to revisit scenes from their lives as well as interact with other souls. They are able to welcome the newly deceased. They can reflect on their experiences and advance to other levels of the afterlife or reincarnate to a new life. The level of a soul’s abilities is dependent on his or her experiences and efforts while alive. The dead characters we meet in Anna in the Afterlife are at this level.
Beyond this level souls are able to interact with the non-human hosts of heaven (angels, gods, etc). A soul would visit these upper levels before returning to earth via reincarnation. Souls can give up their individuality and combine into larger souls, as in this passage from the novel, Visions of Anna:
And then Matthew’s soul did that thing that was so difficult for him and so natural for Natalie: It dropped into silence. What he perceived, he perceived directly, without interpreting into words.
He was in the tunnel now, the tunnel first formed in his forehead by the spot of copal. Then it was the portal in the center of the fire. He was propelled through the narrow space of the tunnel like in a dream of flight: flying like Superman. He saw the long cords of energy once again, the bungee cords of the spirit, stretching beneath him, far down the length of the tunnel, but he did not touch them this time.
Then he was in another space, a larger space, with Natalie flying beside him. Side by side. Then face to face.
He saw those eyes again and understood them more profoundly than he ever had before. He moved in closer, they, each to the other, entering deeply in through the eyes, finding the entry there. The understanding. The memory. Like an irrepressible magnetic attraction. Like a longing to be touched.
And then they were together. Flowing together like twin tributaries moving forward, now conjoined, toward the big river. And as their waters touched, they remembered. My God! How had they ever forgotten this? How had they ever lost this? All their lives alone. Apart. Separated too from all that had come before. The life they’d had. Lives. No! Life was right. Singular. Not plural. For they had been one creature, one consciousness, one whole before. And these pitiful things: This Matthew. This Natalie. They were mere slivers of consciousness, struck off alone for a lifetime.
But why? Why did they do this phenomenally lonely thing, without one another? And without the rest? For they sensed now, occupying this single reunited consciousness, that there were more of them than these two pitiful shards, this Matthew and this Natalie. They were not two halves of a whole, but two fragments of some larger being that even together, with their two consciousnesses conjoined, they could not remember, could not fathom, but could only sense in profound and devastated longing, like some forgotten dream of ecstasy, lurking hauntingly just beyond the limits of recall.
Oh, how they clung together in this reunion of soul, weeping in joy and overwhelming nostalgia: this creature that they were together, one thing and still yet two! For they sensed now the necessity of what they did as these lonely shards of soul on earth. They sensed what was still beyond their understanding, even together. They sensed the size of the mind of which they were just a part: Their lives were part of the conversation of this larger being, part of its exploration, part of its intellectual life. They were part of the dinner it was cooking, or eating. Part of the book it was reading. Or writing. Part of the growth of its mind. For the personalities they became and lived and then reunited were the ongoing soul of it. This Matthew and this Natalie bathed in the profound appreciation of each other, of themself together, a pair and a single thing simultaneously, and of the larger soul they would swim into together again one day. How had they survived being apart all this time? The waste of it!
And the necessity of it, too, they recognized. They were living the conversation. The brilliant conversation, filled with beauty as it was. The pain, too, was beauty. And what joy it would be to rejoin the whole and to see the fabric in its entirety, and to talk again to the other large beings—for this too they sensed: Just as they were part of some larger soul, there were other larger souls of which they were not a part, but whom they loved. And what joy it would be to rejoin in the conversation with these . . . these what? These gods?
They continued flying, face to face, Matthew and Natalie, joined in one mind, and then for a moment they exploded into light. Into an immense ecstasy. The tunnel had taken them inside the bright white core of their larger self, with all around them the separate but conjoined souls of the whole, like hundreds of telepathic baby spiders inside the egg. Oh, the love of this thing they were! This thing that was the magnetic field that held them all together and made them one integrated personality! The most wondrous love! Like a gigantic sustaining all-encompassing orgasm. They were the electric-firing cells of this one large brain, separate yet connected, one mind and a host of parts, joyful, joyful paradox!
My novel, VISIONS OF ANNA, can be purchased at Amazon.com.
Richard Engling will be stepping down as Artistic Director of Polarity Ensemble Theatre after leading the company since its founding in 2004. “For my final production, I’ve selected something I believe is the most important script in our twelve year history,” Engling said. “The world premiere of Gail Parrish’s LEAVINGS presents a story of racial reconciliation that is both moving and inspiring. Every week it seems, we get more reinforcement for the need to insist that Black Lives Matter. I’m using my final selection as Artistic Director to echo that call.” LEAVINGS ran October 21 through November 20, 2016 at the Greenhouse Theater Center in Chicago.
Learn more about the show at www.petheatre.com.
When writing VISIONS OF ANNA, the novel that would later inspire him to pen Anna in the Afterlife, Richard Engling always knew that the text he was crafting to honor his friend Fern Chertkow would be a novel, and not a memoir. He and Fern both loved fiction, and the kind of truth that can come through in it, and so in tribute to her, he chose to tap into that shared love – and in true literary style, he did it both in form and content.
It’s the content part that’s become most alive in Anna in the Afterlife, though. The play is, of course, fiction – a nod back to Engling’s original choice – but unlike the novel, the play unfolds on its feet in front of us. And the love of literature is everywhere; it’s in the characters and in Engling’s text.
We see Anna and Matthew as graduate students in creative writing, sharing and nurturing an understanding of one another born out of and built on a love of fiction. They reference their influences, their loves, writers of whom the other reminds them: Anaïs Nin, Lawrence Durrell, Jack Kerouac. In their younger years, they relish in living their lives in the footsteps of the greats: Hemingway, Orwell, etc.
But the literary presence in the play extends beyond a set of characters who love books, words, and their craft. It is in the very fabric of the play.
Matthew often contemplates the idea of destiny, and is asked to answer difficult questions about unfinished work, or what he was meant to do – what he could do with the remainder of his life. He also thinks, often, of time he could spend with his daughter.
In a script development meeting several months ago, Richard Engling and I were discussing some of the thematic threads that are woven throughout the play, and the various directions in which he might take them. There was a lot bubbling around about legacy, I remember saying – questions about what an artist leaves behind, and how much that matters, if it ever does. “It’s like the Sunday in the Park With George thing,” I said.
For the unindoctrinated, Sondheim’s beautiful “Children and Art” suggests that those are the two things we are truly capable of leaving behind. Art, like a child – or a child, like art – is a legacy. We love our children, and we put what we love in our art. Matthew’s most pivotal moment, perhaps, in his journey, comes when he thinks about what he wants to leave behind.
Anna and Matthew were collaborators, too, and there’s a line in the play about the possibility of a book honoring Anna. Should Matthew choose to do this, he will help Anna achieve a legacy she might have wanted, while also creating his own. And, as art so adeptly imitates life, he will do just what Engling has set out to do in writing his works: to find some truth in storytelling — to explore life vis-à-vis fiction.
Richard’s novel, VISIONS OF ANNA, can be purchased at Amazon.com.
Anna in the Afterlife (companion play to Engling’s novel VISIONS OF ANNA) has had a long life, as it were. Playwright Richard Engling began working on the play in 2010, and it appeared in Polarity’s Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays in 2011. In the years since the festival, “it’s always been in this process of improvement,” says Engling. There have been table reads, staged readings, and discussions, and he has enlisted feedback throughout the process from actors, director Susan Padveen, who has been on board since 2011, his co-founder Ann Keen, his daughter Zoë (also a writer), and dramaturg Deborah Blumenthal.
The play has undergone a lot of change in its five years in development, not the least of which is its title: the older version was not called Anna in the Afterlife – it was called Absolution, and did not actually take place in the afterlife, a development that now, according to Engling, “really defines what the production looks like.” Padveen recalls, “I can’t even remember the first form this play took…. It’s been really interesting to see it change in terms of the container for the story: the story has always been the same, but how it was told and what the structure was and what the arc of it was have really changed a lot, and in a really good way, I think.”
Anna’s history, however, extends back farther than just the script’s development process. When Engling’s friend and fellow writer Fern Chertkow died in 1988, he wanted to craft a literary tribute to her. The result was his novel, Visions of Anna, which later motivated him to write the play, although the play is much more inspired by than adapted from the novel: “[several years after writing the book], an idea started coming to me to approach that material again, but for the stage… This was not an adaptation of the novel, this was a different way of approaching the same source material.” Padveen agrees: “I never felt that it was adapted from something else. I know that the story was the same, but I really felt that Richard attacked it as a stand-alone piece.” The play, along with Chertkow’s book She Plays in Darkness and Engling’s novel, is now part of The Afterlife Trilogy.
The development process has continued throughout rehearsal, albeit in different ways. Being in the rehearsal room has brought to light new things about the script: Padveen explains that “as it’s gotten up on its feet, a lot of the exposition that was in the text has been less necessary, so some of that has gone away, and the changes being made in the past few weeks have been smaller, says Engling: “We’ve made a lot of little changes, mostly line changes, a lot of little cutting. We dropped one scene and wrote a new one… mostly refinements and trimming and that sort of thing.” Engling has also taken on the unusual task of balancing being both actor and playwright (he plays Matthew), and although it is challenging and demanding, it also “really informs” the writing process: being in all of the scenes gives him an “intimate view,” and “being inside” it all has helped him continue to improve the script.
As performances draw closer and the Anna team gets ready to welcome its first audiences, an exciting mystery remains in the process; there are still things to be discovered, and surprises still to come, particularly as the design components come to life. Engling considers himself lucky to have a team of esteemed designers collaborating on the show: “When you write a play and you say, okay, this is in the afterlife, you’re really putting it out there for the designers to come up with something interesting. And I had no idea how it would be affected. I had some inklings of what I thought it might look like… but it’s really an exciting process to have people coming in doing lights and sounds and projections and composing music. It’s like we’ve unleashed this little army.”
Anna in the Afterlife ran April 22-May 24 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, IL 60614. Those looking to enhance their theatre-going experience by reading the novels of THE AFTERLIFE TRILOGY can purchase the books at Amazon.com.
Polarity Artistic Director Richard Engling joins the 2013 Dionysos Cup playwrights with a bonus reading of his play, Anna in the Afterlife, companion play to his novel, Visions of Anna. Anna enters the festival not as part of the competition, but as a work Polarity has had in development for a number of years, going through a series of revisions aided by Engling’s long-time collaborator and Polarity co-founder Ann Keen and appearing in the 2011 Dionysos Cup under the title of Absolution.
“Anna has gone through enormous changes in the process of development,” Engling reports. “Absolution had a heavy streak of meta-fiction running through it. Now that the play is set entirely in the afterlife, it’s actually more ‘realistic’ than before. It’s been getting the full Polarity treatment. Ann Keen, Susan Padveen, Darren Callahan, Sarah Grant, Richard Shavzin, Beth Wolf, Maggie Speer, all have spent considerable time working on various stages of this script with me, reading and critiquing or directing staged readings, doing an amazing amount of service. Plus there are about 20 actors, many audience members and others who have played roles, weighed in and helped out. I’m very grateful for all the assistance.”
“The journey has been fascinating for me, exploring and imagining the world of the afterlife–and especially imagining what would continue to motivate the souls there in the spirit world. Every time I sit down to another round of revisions, it’s a process of exploration and invention. I have some ideas about what I want to achieve, but how I’m going to do it, what characters are going to say or do–I often have no idea until it hits the page. Like Dipoko says, I’m listening to the voices. And they often surprise me.”
Behind the scenes Polarity has been soliciting development help with two novels, as well, in preparation for launching The Afterlife Trilogy:A Live/Lit Collection next season. This interconnected 3-part project is an ambitious and exciting one, especially for a not-for-profit theater. The works span 40 years of creation and offer a unique, multi-sensory experience when taken as a whole.
She Plays in Darknessis the earliest of the works, written by Fern Chertkow in the 1980’s, a few years before her death by suicide in 1988.
The character of Anna in Engling’s Visions of Anna, conceived in the 1990’s, and his just-completed Anna in the Afterlifewere inspired by Fern Chertkow.She Plays in Darkness becomes more revealing when read in the context of the other works. Chertkow used much of herself in characters of the twins, Rosemary and Cynthia, slowly revealing a self-destructiveness that echoes the mystery of her suicide explored in The American Book of the Dead and Anna in the Afterlife.
“This project has a lot of history in it,” Engling admits. “Fern Chertkow and I became close friends in graduate school studying fiction writing. We’d each come from other disciplines: music for Fern and theatre for me. We spent a year in Europe after graduate school and experienced a particularly magical time living as novelists in Paris.
“After her death, I was moved to write a novel that became Visions of Anna in the 1990’s. Because we were both fiction writers, I felt only a work of fiction would be a proper tribute to my old friend, so the character Anna does not equal the real person Fern. Many scenes and characters in both the novel and the play are totally invented. In fact, the first version of Absolution, the play, was driven by the character Anna complaining that Visions of Anna was not an honest depiction. All that meta-fiction was cut away as the play evolved into Anna in the Afterlife.”
Polarity has described Engling’s play in this way:
Novelist Matthew Harken finds himself in a world where he’s not quite alive and not quite dead. His dear friends who have died before him take Matthew back into the past to find the truth about their lives and his. Anna in the Afterlife is a play about choices, life, death and life after death.
Meanwhile, Visions of Anna is the story of a man who, with the aid of a shaman and a beautiful artist he had loved and lost, cures his terminal cancer and puts to rest the ghost of a friend who committed suicide. While it shares some characters and scenes with the play, Anna in the Afterlife, it is a quite different story.
Fern Chertkow’s She Plays in Darkness is a novel about a pair of identical twins who decide to live separately for the first time. Without each other’s presence and support, they veer into disastrous relationships and self-destructive behavior. The twins could almost be seen as yet another, earlier, version of Anna.
Richard Engling’s novel, Visions of Anna can be purchased at Amazon.com.
What makes a great, juicy turkey for Thanksgiving? A fresh turkey. Overnight brining. And this year I’m using a bacon fat baste for delicious smokey crisp skin that helps seal in moisture.
Broth-basted turkeys are less expensive, but I prefer to season my turkey my way. God knows what they are injecting into your bird at the turkey processing plant. And if you do buy a frozen broth-basted or Kosher turkey–don’t brine it! It’ll be too salty.
Brining a fresh turkey produces the juiciest meat imaginable. You soak the turkey in a brine overnight in the refrigerator–or on a cold porch if it’s between 32 and 40 degrees. I have a huge (12 inches in diameter, 9 1/2 inches high) stainless steel stock pot that fits an entire turkey. It’s a great thing to own because it’s also good for making stock and soups, obviously, and fantastic for steaming crab legs or mixing enough sangria for dozens of friends. Some people brine in a cooler and add ice to the brine so as not to use refrigerator space. Some put the brine and turkey in a tall kitchen bag, seal and put that in a cooler. Whatever you use, if the turkey cannot be totally submerged, it’ll have to be turned occasionally.
Richard’s apple brine:
* 1/2 gallon fresh apple cider
* 1 cup sea salt or kosher salt
* 1 tablespoon crushed black peppercorns
* 1 tablespoon crushed whole allspice
* 1 tablespoon dried thyme
* 1 inch peeled fresh ginger, sliced into thin slices
* 2 bay leaves
* 2 tablespoons juniper berries crushed
* 1 1/2 gallon ice water
1. In a large pan, combine the apple cider and other ingredients (but not ice water). Bring to a boil and simmer at least five minutes, stirring frequently to be sure salt is dissolved. Cool to room temperature.
2. Pour the apple cider liquid into stock pot or other container. Stir in the ice water.
3. Wash and dry your turkey. Reserve the innards for making stock. Place the turkey, breast down, into the brine. Make sure that the cavity gets filled. If you need more brine, add more salt water (1/4 cup of salt per quart of water). Keep cool (below 40 degrees) and soak for 12 to 24 hours.
4. The next day, drain the turkey, rinse well, pat dry with paper towels. Discard the brine.
Prepare your stuffing the night before. I make a big batch in a huge salad bowl and put some inside the turkey and bake the rest in a casserole dish.
* 1 1/4 pound of bread, cut into 1/2 inch cubes and toasted in an oven at 400 degrees until lightly browned. A firm white bread is good. 1/2 pound could be a lighter wheat. Don’t use heavy whole grain breads.
* 2 1/4 cups onion chopped.
* 2 1/4 cups celery sliced
* One stick of butter
Saute the onion and celery about 5 minute (until tender)
Mix with the toasted bread.
* 1 pound sliced mushrooms
* 1/4 stick of butter
Saute the mushrooms lightly
Mix with the toasted bread.
* 1/2 cup pine nuts (Yes, my friend, PINE NUTS!)
* 1/2 cup dried currents or raisins
* 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
* 1 teaspoon dried sage or 1 tablespoon minced fresh
* 1 teaspoon dried thyme or 1 tablespoon minced fresh
* 3/4 tablespoon salt
* 1/2 teaspoon pepper
For the portion of the stuffing that will go in a casserole dish, dot the top generously with butter. Add a 1/4 cup of chicken stock to moisten and bake covered for 45 minutes and take the cover off for a final 15 minutes.
Make bacon for breakfast Thanksgiving day and reserve the bacon fat for basting the turkey. Or better yet, make BLTs some night this week and save the fat to make Thanksgiving morning easier. Fry a 1/2 pound of bacon, at least.
Roasting the turkey:
If you want stuffing cooked in the bird (and who doesn’t?) stuff the body and neck cavity loosely with stuffing (recipe to follow). Use round toothpick or bamboo skewers stuck through the skin twice, like sewing needles, to hold the close the cavities. Tie the legs together with unwaxed dental floss or kitchen string (Some turkey come with a metal or plastic device for holding the legs together).
If you are not stuffing the turkey, put a few apple and orange slices and a sprig of fresh herbs (thyme, rosemary, parley, cilantro or sage) into the cavity for flavor. An unstuffed turkey will roast about a 1/2 hour faster than a stuffed one.
Put the turkey onto a rack in a roasting pan and rub it all over with the bacon fat. (If you don’t want to deal with the bacon fat, use butter). Sprinkle with ground pepper and dried thyme. Cover the breast lightly with a greased, double-thick layer of aluminum foil so it doesn’t overcook. Uncover it to brown in the final hour of cooking.
In the bottom of the roasting pan, pour in a can of low salt chicken stock plus 4 garlic cloves, one onion cut in quarters and a teaspoon each of dried thyme, parsley and sage (or a tablespoon each of fresh).
Roast the turkey on the lowest rack in the oven at 325 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes per pound if it’s stuffed or 10 to 12 minutes if it is not. Brush the skin with bacon fat, butter or pan drippings every 30 minutes. When it’s done, an instant read thermometer will read at least 175 to 180 degrees in the thickest part of the thigh. Stuffing must reach at least 160 degress to be safe.
While the turkey is roasting, put the neck and gibblets into a sauce pan with three cups of water, a quartered onion, a carrot, one or two sticks of celery, three peeled cloves of garlic, and a 1/2 teaspoon each of dried thyme, parsley and sage (or a 1/2 tablespoon each of fresh). Bring to a boil and simmer as the turkey roasts. Break apart the neck bones with a spoon as it cooks down. Add water if more than a cup of water boils away.
When the turkey is done, strain the broth. Put the turkey on a platter to rest for 10 minutes. Spoon off all but two tablespoons of fat from the drippings in the pan. Pour the remaining drippings into the broth and scrape the stuck bits into it as well. Mix 4 tablespoons of flour into a 1/2 cup of apple cider until it’s smooth. Bring the broth/drippings mix to a low boil. Very slowly pour the flour mix to it, stirring, until it reaches the thickness you prefer. You probably won’t need it all. (Are you now saying, “Richard, @$#&! I put all the apple cider in the brine!”? Don’t panic. Use canned chicken stock instead).
As I finish up my shopping list for the day, I am struck by the similarities between the Artistic Director and the Thanksgiving Chef. Each brings together the best combination of ingredients and cooking. In the theatre, one gathers the team and selects the script, director, actors, designers and technical staff, and provides the environment in which they can “cook” to perfection with the right amount of rehearsal time, money and materials into the final feast. Then it is a matter of getting the guests to the table to enjoy the meal.