Turtle Soup Man

Of Raceland

My Rouses Everyday, March/April 2016

When my nephew Henry was six, he requested an apron for Christmas. I was all over it. You see, the men in my family cook. My brother cooks, my father cooked and my grandfather was world famous — or at least famous in my world — for his turtle soup.

In the 1950s, people came to Raceland from all over the bayou to dine at his restaurant, the White Tavern. He served heaping platters of fried frog legs, fresh caught catfish, redfish courtbullion, and a very popular corn and shrimp stew, but he was legendary for his turtle soup.

Papa came from a long line of nightlife entrepreneurs. His great uncle, Philip Guichet, was an owner of Tujaque’s, the second oldest restaurant in New Orleans, and his father and eldest brother, both named Armand, operated the Danos Niteclub and Tee-Lee’s Dance Hall on the bayou from the 1930s well into the early ’70s.

So when Henry announced his growing interest in cooking, I got right online and ordered him a child-size blue apron with his name appliquéd boldly across the front. Chef Henri had arrived, my personal belief in nature over nurture was greatly reinforced, and I shared a good laugh with my brother, sing song-ing our longtime family mantra, “You can take the boy out of the bayou, but you can’t take the bayou out of the boy.”

Or girl, for that matter.

By the time I was born and growing up in Raceland and Thibodaux, the White Tavern was long into its autumn years, but nonetheless my memories are strong. What it lacked in customers at that time, it more than made up in warmth, patina and charm. And Papa …well, I would describe him in just the same way. He was a tidily groomed man of very few words (if four or five words did the trick, you got four or five words) and little formal education. But his eyes sparkled with a definitive joie de vivre, and his sly smile made you feel like you were the most important person in the world. When I showed him my Tulane diploma in 1985 at his little house behind the long-closed White Tavern, he pretty much said the same thing that he said in 1969 when I proudly showed him my jump rope skills on his carport, “Mais cher, c’est ci bon. You want some turtle soup?”

Turtle soup was our little tradition, and whenever my dad said, “You wanna take a ride?” I knew he meant to Raceland and the White Tavern. I loved the 20-minute drive down the bayou. My dad would tell colorful family stories about an equally colorful cast of characters, and we stopped at tiny vegetable and fruit stands along the way. Creole tomatoes, okra, fresh green beans — my dad would speak French with old man so-and-so or we would just leave money in the tin can provided, an honor system that always mesmerized me.

At the St. Charles Crossing, we would discuss if we wanted to switch to the other side of the bayou for the rest of the way, but we never did, unless we were heading to New Orleans.

Often, as we neared the turn onto Old Houma Road, we would pull over if a handmade sign on the side of a truck was just too good to pass up. “Fat, fat crabs” was my all-time favorite sign, and my dad called me that all through my teens as an inside joke.

Of course, this was well before cell phones, and we never called ahead to the White Tavern. We announced our arrival by arriving. And the scene was always pretty much the same no matter the time of day. There would be a couple of barflies on the well-worn leather stools drinking little ponies, and my grandfather would reach into a long, gleaming stainless steel fridge where he kept little Cokes, Zatarain’s homemade root beer and large blocks of ice. I instinctively knew that my Yankee Uptown mom (she was from Baton Rouge and New Orleans) would not want me behind the bar or looking at the décor consisting of antique rifles and taxidermy, a single old-fashioned slot machine and pin-up girl calendars. So I would quickly hit up my dad for a quarter or two for the jukebox so that my younger sister Gigi and I could twist and shout and later crocodile rock while Papa was in the kitchen.

Papa would set a booth up with sparkling silverware, and soon we would be feasting on the most delicious fried potatoes I have ever eaten, fried chicken (“that’s gonna take a good half hour, beb”), white beans and rice with French-style meatballs, and smothered whatever was fresh from the garden. I often wonder what four or five choice words my grandfather would have for the currently popular culinary phrase “farm to table.” Four to five printable words don’t readily come to mind.

This is when I would hear all of the amazing stories of the glory years of the White Tavern. Giant seafood platters were $3.00, a little pony was 25 cents and the place was packed on Saturday nights and Sunday after church. The restaurant opened in 1949 when my grandfather struck out on his own after working for his father and brother at Danos’ Niteclub and Tee-Lee’s Dance Hall.


Before I go any further I should say that I have lived most of my life as a city girl. So when Rouses asked me if I would like to write about my family, I jumped at the chance to spend time bolstering the family lore with firsthand facts from the family who lived next door to Papa his entire life. Paul Bourgeois, Mr. Paul as we knew him, was my grandfather’s closest friend, and when we visited, he would show us the turtle cages in the back of the restaurant and let us watch him clean fish or tinker with his various homemade fishing poles and nets.

I knew that his children, who were a little older than me, would know so much more about the White Tavern, and boy, did they. We emailed back and forth as they answered my many questions and generously shared their memories. I was fascinated by all of the hunting, fishing and “good eating” stories, but especially the ones about making turtle soup.

According to Mr. Paul’s five children (one son, Irwin, worked for my grandfather all through high school), the turtles for the restaurant were caught in Lake Fields by several local men, including Slim Zeringue, Walter Kraemer and Toby Theriot, who fished, caught and cleaned frogs and turtles as their livelihood. Loggerheads could weigh as much as 140 pounds and snapping turtles 35 pounds; they were kept in white wooden pens behind the restaurant until needed. Slim’s daughter Bonnie Morris, who lived across the street from the White Tavern, vividly recalls polishing silver and dusting tables for 50 cents an hour on the weekends and eating boiled turtle eggs the size of ping-pong balls as afternoon snacks.

Papa and Mr. Paul hunted and fished together for their personal catch, wading in the marshes in hip boots and watching closely for small bubbles on the water, which meant they were in luck. The turtles were caught with a net, cleaned by Mr. Paul and cooked by Papa, a partnership that worked for them for over 50 years. Ducks were hunted on the banks of the lake, or they went out in a pirogue or skiff to their reed and grass blinds. Mallards, wood ducks and teals were used in the restaurant and poule deaus, which were plentiful, were only used at home in a jambalaya or gumbo. Rosella Bourgeois told me that when Papa routinely brought his ducks to her mother to clean, he always said the exact same thing without fail — “feather four and keep the rest” — no matter how many birds he had in hand. I knew then that she knew him well, as that sounds exactly like the turtle soup man I loved.

Since moving to the city, I have only sipped this delicacy at an occasional country club wedding or Commander’s Palace dinner. Now, with the help of the Bourgeois clan, I have the original recipe that they saved for all of these years. I’m not saying I will be hunting for turtles anytime soon, but I sure will be cooking the dish I loved so much as a child. Or requesting it from my brother and Henry.