Between the mid-1800s and 1920s, the Diamondback Terrapin was firmly lodged in the hearts and stomachs of the wealthy and powerful at the top of the American food chain. It hadn't always been that way. Terrapin, a name derived from a hodgepodge of the Algonquin, Abenaki and Delaware words for "edible" or "good-tasting turtle," had been part of the Native American diet for centuries. Cheap and plentiful, the Diamondback was also important to the diet of enslaved African Americans forced to live along the southern coast. Even as late as the Civil War, Confederate soldiers were supplementing their meager rations with the abundant terrapin.
By the mid-19th century, though, something had fundamentally changed. Suddenly, the little turtle began to show up on tables at Andrew Jackson's White House and New York's famous Delmonicos, once considered the best restaurant in the country. We don't really know "how and why terrapins became a gourmet item," biologist and Diamondback authority Barbara Brennessel told me in an email sent from the marshes of Massachusetts, where she's monitoring the terrapin nesting season. But gourmet they were.
The moneyed set would dine on the dish du jour at popular "turtle frolics," large feasts where crowds slurped massive vats of terrapin soup, and at expensive restaurants and private clubs in New York City, Washington D.C., Philadelphia and Baltimore. Meanwhile, middle-class housewives tried their hand at turtle, too. Recipes for terrapin soup appear in cookbooks like the 1902 tome on food and household management, Mrs. Seely's Cookbook. Heinz and Campbell's also jumped on the terrapin train, marketing their canned turtle soups (and "mock" turtle soups made of calf's head) to the hoi polloi, for whom exorbitant prices left actual terrapin soup out of reach.
Though terrapin was occasionally prepared as "steaks," soup made with cream, butter and a healthy dose of sherry or Madeira wine was the gold standard of turtle dishes. It's a recipe that still shows up at a handful of restaurants in the East and South, with one big change: Following decades of unregulated overharvesting, the now protected Diamondback Terrapin, prized for its sweet, white meat, has been replaced by farm-raised alligator snapping turtles.
"Every menu we've ever seen, [dating] back to the '40s and '50s, has turtle soup on it," says Ti Martin, co-proprietor of Commander's Palace, a historic restaurant in New Orleans' Garden District, where the dish is still on offer.
As children, Martin and her sister and co-proprietor, Lally Brennan, would name and play with the snapping turtles that arrived alive at the restaurant before they were sent to the kitchen. These days, Commander's Palace receives the meat in chunks from a Louisiana farm, then combines it with veal stock, pureed lemon tips and 20 other ingredients to create its best-selling dish. Martin jokes that the restaurant uses so much sherry in the popular soup, it must order more of the liquor than anyone else in the city.
Today, sherry and other fortified wines can be purchased just about anywhere. But for 13 long years, from 1920 to 1933, there was no sherry in America — at least, none that could be acquired legally. During Prohibition, not only did wine and spirits disappear from expensive restaurants, so too did sauces and soups made with liquor, then considered the epitome of gourmet cooking.
"National Prohibition brought catastrophe to most good restaurants, especially the fancy and the expensive ones," writes economist Tyler Cowen in An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies. One commentator of the era called it a "gastronomic holocaust." Restaurants from New York to Los Angeles shuttered, one after another, taking signature dishes like terrapin soup down with them.
It was a nail in the coffin for terrapin soup, which by the 1910s, was increasingly out of reach for all but the rich due to shrinking populations and rising prices. But for the Diamondback Terrapin itself, Prohibition was the teetotaling dam that stemmed the tide of extinction.
FWIW, there was a commercial fishery for Diamond Back Terrapins in Maryland until 2007. I believe most of the harvest was sent overseas to the orient, as the demand for turtle soup never rebounded to former levels. However, I have a dim memory, from childhood, of my Dad and one of my uncles, fruitlessly searching a small creek in NoVa for terrapins to make soup out of.
We see terrapins fairly often over on the Eastern Shore while fishing, and crab pots are supposed to be fitted with special entrances to exclude turtles (and other bycatch). But I imagine a few terrapins still go into to the soup pot in some out the way locations.
The Wombat has Rule 5 Sunday: Kathy Zhu up and running on time and within budget.
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