Hungry History

The Rise and Fall of Turtle Soup

By Stephanie Butler
Turtle Soup

A bowl of mock turtle soup, featuring lean stew beef as a substitute for the traditional reptile. (Stephanie Butler)

If you spend any amount of time paging through old menus, looking back to the Diamond Jim Brady era of American overeating, you’ll find a mention of turtle soup. Heck, you’ll probably find several mentions. This noble stew (and its mock counterpart) was served at presidential inaugurations, on the first transcontinental trains and in crowded boardinghouses across the growing country. It was President Taft’s favorite food, and given that the White House had to custom-build a bathtub to accommodate his girth, you’ve got to respect the man’s opinion.

But when did Americans begin eating this unlikely delicacy, and why did they stop? Green snapping turtles were abundant in the first colonies, and early settlers ate their fill of the meat. Turtle eggs appeared on Plymouth Colony dinner tables. Turtle soup in some form probably made the menu at the first Thanksgiving, albeit without the sherry and tomatoes the soup would later feature. By the Revolutionary War, turtle soup figured prominently on menus and in cookbooks across the country.

A large snapping turtle is said to contain seven distinct types of meat, each reminiscent of pork, chicken, beef, shrimp, veal, fish or goat. (Those less enamored of the protein might describe its flavor as muddy, dirty, mushy and chewy, however.) Recipes from the 1800s provide detailed instructions for cleaning turtles (general consensus seemed to be to cut off the head first, then go for the innards and flippers) and also give cooks the freedom to get their turtle meat from cans. Recipes for the first mock turtle soups appeared around the same time; indeed, the soup was so popular that diners preferred a fake version to no turtle soup at all. Some recipes for mock turtle soup instruct cooks to boil a whole veal head and make the stew from the resulting mass of meat, while others ask for a mix of tripe, tendon and sweetbreads that wouldn’t be out of place in a bowl of Vietnamese pho.

In the end, turtle soup became the victim of its own overwhelming popularity. It migrated from presidential dinners down to railway dining cars, and finally to the red and white Campbell’s can in the 1920s. By World War II, harried cooks had long tired of dressing their own turtles, and cheaper and tastier canned options to turtle became available. Newfangled convenience products like TV dinners and Spam were the final strikes against the increasingly unfashionable turtle soup, and by the 1960s it had gone the way of pepper pot, served only in certain regions of America.

For our modernized mock turtle soup, we chose lean stew beef as a substitute for the turtle. One of the few places in America to still serve the soup is in New Orleans at the venerable Commander’s Palace, where it’s presented with a glass of sherry on the side for diners to pour into the soup. We love the flavor of sherry but didn’t want the raw alcohol taste to overpower flavors, so we added sherry in two stages: once to deglaze the pan, and then later with the stock and tomatoes to enrich the broth. Finally, the soup is thickened the traditional Creole way, with a cooked flour and butter mixture called roux mixed into the bubbling pot. This results in a thick, complex dish, more a stew than a soup, that we think would be best enjoyed alongside some rich mashed potatoes or creamy polenta.

MOCK TURTLE SOUP

Start to finish: 1 1/2 hours
Servings: 4

1 1/2 pounds stew beef
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup flour
1 red onion, diced
3 sticks celery, diced
2 carrots, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup sherry
2 cups chicken, beef or vegetable broth
2 cups canned diced tomatoes
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
Chopped parsley and hard-boiled egg slices for garnish (optional)

In a small saucepan or sauté pan, melt 4 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. Whisk in flour and 1/2 teaspoon salt gradually until incorporated, then continue stirring to avoid burning. Cook until the roux is nut brown and the raw flour taste has disappeared, about 3 minutes. Set aside to cool.

In a large saucepan or Dutch oven, melt 4 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. Add the beef and 1/2 teaspoon of salt, and brown thoroughly, about 10 minutes. Remove meat from pan and add red onions, cook for 3 minutes, then add celery, carrots, bell pepper and garlic. Cook vegetables until translucent and browning begins, about 8 minutes.

Add beef back to the pan and deglaze with 1/2 cup of the sherry, stirring to remove any brown crust that may have formed on the bottom of the pan. When sherry is almost fully evaporated, add broth, diced tomatoes, cayenne and the remainder of the sherry. Simmer for 30 minutes to let the flavors blend. Whisk in the cooled roux gradually to get the soup as thick or thin as you like. When soup has thickened, serve hot, garnished with chopped parsley and egg slices.

Categories: Soup, U.S. Presidents, William Howard Taft