Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Turtle Soup

Perhaps the very thought of it sounds disgusting to you.

But I started thinking about it the other day, not so much out of my own appetite, but more out of a sense of curiosity.

In other words, whatever happened to turtle soup? It used to be considered quite a delicacy. Now it's very hard to find on any menu, especially if you are dining anywhere but the Low Country or the Gulf Coast. Even in the Gulf Coast, Ralph Brennan agrees that one is unlikely to find it on a restauant menu. Brennan offers a reason for this:

While supplies of fresh water turtles, the only kind lawfully sold as food, are abundant in the New Orleans area to make Turtle Soup; in other parts of the country, the dish is illegal.
Turtle soup recipes in The Big Easy tend to be thicker, tomato-based versions. (Here's an example.) Yet even in New Orleans, turtle soup is rare to find. Maybe this reflects how much tastes have changed over the past couple of centuries. Turtle soup was considered a delicacy in colonial America. In one of the oldest English novels, The History of Tom Jones, the author writes:

The tortoise — as the alderman of Bristol, well learned in eating, knows by much experience — besides the delicious calipash and calipee, contains many different kinds of food . . .
Presidents must have loved turtle soup. At an 1843 reception for President John Tyler, turtle soup highlighted the first course. Abraham Lincoln served turtle soup at his inaugural event. Ten months earlier, during the Buchanan administration, the first Japanese delegation to visit the White House reportedly "relished" their meal, which included turtle soup.

This White House cookbook published in 1889 contains a recipe for mock turtle soup. Amazingly, recipes for turtle soup seem to have survived the passing of time. In fact, earlier this year the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette found a local resident who has 15 different recipes for making turtle soup.

How's that for variety?

I've had turtle soup before, and I thought it was pretty good. But I don't know how authentic the version was that I was served. (In other words, did it bear any resemblance to what an upper-crust American would have eaten had he or she prepared turtle soup in the 1800s?)

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