Turtley Delicious

For some wistful diners, memories of childhood are directly linked to the scent of jams and jellies being canned in a grandmother’s kitchen, or the taste of their first bites of a nectar-flavored snowball on a hot summer day. But for James Beard Award-nominated chef Slade Rushing of Brennan’s in New Orleans, his childhood memories taste a little bit more, uh, reptilian.

“When I was growing up [in Mississippi], my mom likes to say that I was eating turtle soup at six months old,” Rushing says. “Just the smell of it gives me a rush of nostalgia to this day.”

For those unfamiliar with turtle soup, the dish might be something of a head-scratcher. How did the slow-wobbling turtle become the focal point of a creation that’s not only revered as a Gulf Coast delicacy, but has become synonymous with über-high-end dining? After all, as Rushing points out, no one is exactly lining up to eat turtle cooked in other ways.

Ultimately, the dish’s regional popularity comes down to a confluence of geographic location and the historic cultural stew of New Orleans cuisine. Early pioneers of Creole cooking — who were looking to re-create decadent, hearty soups rooted in Francophone traditions — found that, while traditionally rich ingredients like veal weren’t as common in Louisiana, the swamps were full of turtles — from snappers to red ears and everything in between. Turtle, with its seven distinctive types of meat, proved to be an ideal, velvety soup component that was able to create luxury from a local source. Soon, no one missed the veal at all.

“Our turtle soup is one of our most iconic dishes on the menu, and the recipe goes back probably 300 years. We like to say, ‘If it crawls across your yard, a person from Louisiana has a recipe to cook it,’” laughs Chef Tory McPhail of Commander’s Palace. “The recipe I use here is one that Paul Prudhomme and Ella [Brennan] came up with in the early 1970s based on tradition, history and our climate here in New Orleans. One of the things we make sure to do is always garnish turtle soup with eggs, because a century ago, if you didn’t have any fresh seafood to help fill out the soup, you could boil some eggs and chop them up to add a little extra protein to the meal during leaner times. Turtle soup really rings true to the heritage of Louisiana.”

Today, the turtle soup that’s found on menus from the Grand Dame restaurants of the French Quarter to mom-and-pop joints lining the Acadiana coast is as singular and personal as the individual preparing it. Some, like Chef McPhail, add egg to the dish, while others slide a bevy of vegetables in alongside the turtle meat. The addition of sherry, for most, is a critical piece of the flavor puzzle. And there are even diehards who judge whether a turtle soup is truly “authentic” by the presence of two different kinds of turtle fats: the green-tinged calipash fat from inside the upper shell of the turtle and the buttery-yellow calipee fat attached to the bottom shell. No matter the specific preparation, though, the decadent, umami flavor and one-of-a-kind texture afforded by turtle soup ensure that, many times, this appetizer steals the show for the entire meal.

“New Orleans is definitely a soup town. We serve thousands of bowls of turtle soup in the course of the year. During busy times, we serve hundreds of bowls a day,” says Chef McPhail. “We buy our turtle meat already detailed and grind it, but turtle meat is extremely rich, so we have to gently braised the whole thing down. It’s a meat that can be very intense and tacky. In your mouth, [eating turtle meat] can be like that feeling you get after eating ham-hock greens or pig ears. Because of that, the intensity of our seasoning needs to liven up the ingredient, so that’s why we use a three-day veal stock and lots of spices and hot sauce in the dish.”

Chef Rushing agrees. “Turtle meat is a lot like veal in a sense, but it’s a prehistoric animal. My dad would get turtles to make turtle soup, and the heart would beat for like an hour after butchering. They’re really durable animals that are hard to break down, and the meat itself requires a lot of attention. But when it’s braised properly, it can be as tender as veal.”

While the Gulf South might be the only region still carrying the banner for turtle soup in the present day, it wasn’t too long ago that the dish was a nationwide phenomenon. Groups of men known as “snapper hunting parties” would venture out to catch turtles in much the same way they take to their duck blinds or tree stands now, wading through creek beds and ponds to grab up the terrapins with hands and hooks.

Even America’s founding fathers — from George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, to Ben Franklin and Aaron Burr — were diehard turtle soup lovers, with an affection so extreme that one of the country’s first social club was named the Hoboken Turtle Club. When club members gathered, bowl after bowl of turtle soup was served, alongside a steady flow of cocktails and, according to some reports, stewed eel. Club member (and noted polar explorer) I.I. Hayes famously compared the taste of turtle meat to “fried seal’s liver and walrus bacon” while the description from an 1878 New York Times article on the Turtle Club proved a bit more flowery:

[When you eat turtle soup] you remove the spoon and shut your eyes, and your soul, on the wings of sensuous thought, passes outward into lotus land, and for a time you are lost in a dream that is so still, so perfect, and so all absorbing that you wish, lazily and sadly, it might never end. But you swallow the soup and open your eyes, discover that the face of nature is unchanged, and then, your intellect having reasserted its sway, you conclude that the turtle, like the swan, yields its only perfect symphony in its death.

Adding to the undeniable strangeness of turtle soup’s legacy is the fact that there’s a faux version of the stuff that, in the eyes of some, is even more popular and delightful than the original.

Mock turtle soup was first stewed up during the mid-1700s in England, when the national craze over green sea turtle meat from the Caribbean had reached a reptilian fever pitch. Out of all the turtle-based delights served up during this era, turtle soup quickly became the most coveted and highly prized delicacy, carrying the same sort of class-status weight a tray full of Beluga caviar or a bottle of 1998 Krug Champagne Vintage Brut does when served today. It was a dish reflective of rarified air in the truest sense of the term; a soup so fine that its primary ingredient, green sea turtle, had to be shipped — still alive — thousands of miles across the ocean before the dish’s preparation could even begin in earnest.

Needless to say, the price point was out of range for most people, and chefs began experimenting with how to create a version of the dish that retained the unique flavor profile and textural consistency of the soup without ponying up for an exorbitantly expensive meat. The common solution? Calf’s head, which had a similarly jellylike quality and didn’t skimp on the richness.

“Hannah Glasse, in the sixth edition of Art of Cookery (1758), added calf’s head to her turtle soup recipe because it had the same gelatinous texture,” writes Jennifer McLagan in Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animal. “In later editions, she doesn’t even bother to use turtle at all, replacing it with calf’s head cooked in stock and flavored with Madeira. She does, however, maintain the pretense that it is real turtle soup by serving it in a shell.”

The ubiquitous nature of mock turtle soup as a dish that was fancy — but not real-turtle-soup fancy — carried over to the United States, where most cooks continued to make it with calf’s head, brains or a combination of offal meats. And while the Founding Fathers were known to fawn over turtle soup (the real thing), Abraham Lincoln made it a point to serve mock turtle soup at his inaugural luncheon as a message of austerity and frugality. (In 2009, President Obama used a similar tactic, serving a menu of dishes inspired by Lincoln’s choices at his own inauguration — including mock turtle soup.)

Mock turtle soup remained a staple across the country — most notably as a signature dish of Cincinnati, Ohio, where slaughterhouses were plentiful and calf heads extra-cheap — until the mid-20th century, when the penny-pinching dishes of yore tapered off in favor of low-priced TV dinners and the heat-and-eat concoctions that fill our freezer aisles today. It’s even increasingly rare in turtle-soup-loving New Orleans, where — if you can find it on a menu — the “mock” portion of the soup is likely veal, ground beef or a combination of the two.

But, to this day, there remains — among a certain type of culinary oddball — a strange affection for dishes like mock turtle soup, if for no other reason than its relative scarceness and, for that, cultural value.

“Soups are like paintings, don’t you think?” Andy Warhol mused in a 1962 interview. “Imagine some smart collector buying up [Campbell’s] Mock Turtle when it was available and cheap and now selling it for hundreds of dollars a can! I suppose it’d be smart now to start collecting Cheddar Cheese soup.”

And while Warhol might’ve deemed mock turtle soup his favorite, it’s author Lewis Carroll who ensured that the dish will continue to be a literary and artistic reference for generations to come. In 1865’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, our heroine-who-fell-down-the-rabbit-hole, Alice, meets a sniveling, crying creature known as the Mock Turtle, illustrated as having both a tortoise shell and flippers but the head, hooves and tail of a young calf. He regales Alice with a story about how he was once a “real turtle” but fate had different plans:

“When we were little,” the Mock Turtle went on at last, more calmly, though still sobbing a little now and then, “we went to school in the sea. The master was an old Turtle — we used to call him Tortoise —“

“Why did you call him Tortoise, if he wasn’t one?” Alice asked.

“We called him Tortoise because he taught us,” said the Mock Turtle angrily: “really you are very dull!”

Eventually, the Mock Turtle stifles his sniffles long enough to recite a poem for Alice about (what else?) the glory of mock turtle soup, that could just as easily be used as an ode to the real thing:

Beautiful Soup, so rich and green,
Waiting in a hot tureen!
Who for such dainties would not stoop?
Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!