Slow food: Turtle soup is a throwback to an earlier elegant time


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Abraham Lincoln served it at his 1861 inauguration. Twenty-seventh president William Howard Taft hired a special chef to make it during his days in the White House. And decades later a young Pittsburgh area couple ordered it at a local tavern when they wanted to celebrate.

Turtle soup brings to mind exotic, old-fashioned elegance, doesn't it? But it's not as outdated as you might think.

"In the mid-1960s my new bride and I lived in the Brentwood area," Dick Mellick, now of McMurray, wrote to Kitchen Mailbox. "We were poor as church mice, but saw fit to splurge and treat ourselves to take-out turtle soup, which was available at a neighborhood bar on Brownsville Road. We have been looking for someplace that makes turtle soup."

I published Mr. Mellick's letter in the Kitchen Mailbox column and in just a few days I received a heap of mail directing me to restaurants in the Pittsburgh-area that still offer turtle soup. Some readers sent recipes.

Turtle soup? When the subject came up at the office there were a lot of gasps and "Ughs!" Nobody seemed to have ever tasted it. "Why would anyone want to?" one person said. "It sounds awful." Another person noted that he likes turtles too much to eat them.

I agreed. I had no desire to try it, let alone make it. But it turns out, my husband, Ray, likes turtle soup. And I was becoming a little curious about it.

Once commonly made with sea turtles before they became endangered and protected, most turtle soup in America today is made with freshwater and farm-raised turtles. I found turtle meat -- farm-raised and frozen snapping turtle -- at Wholey's Fish Market in the Strip District. It comes in 5-pound tubs and Wholey's will cut it to order. And it's not cheap, at $16 per pound.

Maybe that's why some people in the region catch the turtle themselves. The legal season opens July 1. All you need is a fishing license (and a permit if you plan to sell the turtles) and you can catch up to the daily limit of 15 freshwater snapping turtles -- the only species you're allowed to harvest in Pennsylvania.

But you'd better know what you're doing. Just ask Mike Sichak of Franklin Park. Before catching his first one, he took a seminar on how to trap snapping turtles (or snapper turtles as some call them). "To catch turtles you have to reach under the banks and grab the turtle by its tail or back legs," he explains.

You don't want a snapping turtle to grab you, because they can snap off fingers. "The biggest turtle I caught weighed 34 pounds," says Mr. Sichak, who bested that big one, too.

He has 15 recipes for turtle soup. "The way I can tell if my soup is good is when someone asks for another helping."

So many people love turtle soup that it is a staple at several restaurants in the region.

Turtle soup is offered daily at all three Springfield Grille restaurants. At the Mercer location, "Turtle Soup is our signature soup," said general manager Theresa Decker. Executive Chef Nate Baker makes about 35 to 40 gallons of it every week. "We make a turtle meat stock, which is dark and flavorful," he says. "Then we add the shredded turtle meat."

The best part is, they serve the soup in a classic presentation -- with a glass of sherry on the side that the diner can add to the soup to enrich the flavor.

Dry sherry also is served on the side with the Cajun turtle soup at the Sewickley Hotel, which serves it every day. "It's more of a New Orleans style soup," says "Chef Kenny" Brumm, who uses eight different herbs to make this thick and spicy soup. The restaurant sells about 5 gallons of it a week during the summer and 10 to 15 gallons in the winter.

"You have a good turtle soup recipe, you hang on to it -- you guard it with your life," said Chef Ken Fink of 5 Fools Restaurant in McCandless. He makes 5 gallons every week, with frozen California farm-raised turtle meat and more than 20 other ingredients.

"The soup is popular with older people because they grew up eating turtle soup," he says. "Other people want to try it because it's something different."

If turtle is a bit too different for you, there's always mock turtle soup. Mock turtle soup grew popular in Victorian England when only the wealthy could afford the price of turtle meat. I have a book from 1902 titled "The Home Cyclopedia of Practical Information," in which I found a recipe for mock turtle soup. It includes the boiling of a calf's head and removal of the calf's brains and that's where I draw the line.

For many in this region, turtle soup is tied to the tradition of catching your own.

West View's Paul Schubert grew up on turtle soup.

"My father would go turtle hunting up the Allegheny River," he recalls. "I didn't help make the soup but I did help him chop the turtle's neck off. I was about 12 years old then, I remember he used a big pot and when I say big I mean big! He made enough soup to share with the neighbors.

"His turtle soup was like vegetables soup," he says," but spicy and that's what made it so good."

While many states have banned harvesting of snapping turtles (the giant alligator snapping turtle of the Southeast now is a protected species), Pennsylvania is one that allows limited harvesting of the common snapping turtle -- from July 1, after the female turtles have laid their eggs, through Oct. 31.

According to the state Fish and Boat Commission, "Snapping turtle meat has been found to contain only small amounts of PCBs and is safe to eat without restrictions." But it advises reducing your exposure to the pollutants by carefully trimming away all fat and internal organs and discarding them before cooking the meat.

If you have no desire to wander around river beds hunting for turtles, just go out to eat. Mr. Schubert's favorite place is The Grant Bar and Lounge in Millvale. You'll find more in the accompanying list.

Mr. Mellick has plenty of places to take his wife for an old-fashioned splurge.

Another Kitchen Mailbox reader, Lucy Salo of Washington, Pa., sent the accompanying recipe that I tried. I was wondering what turtle meat looked like as I walked into Wholey's to buy it. And now I know: It's similar to beef in texture and color. But after dicing the meat and cooking the soup, I couldn't bring myself to try it.

My husband had a big bowl and proclaimed, "Good, but not spicy enough." I knew he would say that! I should have added a few more dashes of hot sauce.

Since my soup didn't satisfy his craving, we took a drive to the Sewickley Hotel. Ray ordered a bowl. I ordered a salad. After the first spoonful, he said, "Now that's turtle soup!" I'd put it off long enough. I had to taste it. And it was good! It was thick and spicy, like a turtle chili. The soup I made was more of a broth.

Still, if my husband gets a yen for turtle soup again, we'll go out. As for me, I will make turtle cookies -- the chocolate kind.

OLD ORIGINAL BOOKBINDER'S SNAPPER SOUP

PG TESTED

Lucy Salo of Washington, Pa., sent this recipe for "Old Original Bookbinder's Snapper soup from a Bucks County newspaper, Bucks County Midweek, that's at least 27 years old."

This recipe calls for veal or beef knuckles. I used a beef shank bone but knuckles are available at McGinnis Specialty Food Store on Route 51 in Brentwood, where they'll give you the bones if you buy the soup meat. Butcher Carl Pursh said, "You can use knuckles, which are the animal's knee cap, or a beef shank bone. Beef knuckles will give you a milder broth; veal knuckles will give you lighter broth -- more clarified."

-- Arlene Burnett

  • 1 1/2 pounds beef or veal knuckles, cut in 2-inch pieces (I used one beef shank bone about the same size)
  • 1/4 cup butter melted
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 1/2 cup chopped celery
  • 1/2 cup chopped carrot
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 whole clove
  • 1 small bay leaf
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme, crushed
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 10 1/2-ounce cans beef broth
  • 8-ounce can tomatoes
  • 1 pound frozen turtle, thawed and diced
  • 3 cups water
  • 1/2 cup dry sherry
  • Dash bottled hot pepper sauce
  • 1 lemon slice

In a shallow roasting pan combine the first 10 ingredients. Bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes. Push the bones to one side; blend in flour.

Lower oven temperature to 350 degrees and bake 30 minutes longer. Transfer to a soup pot, add beef broth and tomatoes. Cover, simmer 45 minutes. In a large pot combine turtle meat and water. Cook, covered, until meat is tender, about 1 hour. Remove meat to cool. Reserve 2 cups cooking liquid.

Add turtle meat, reserved liquid, sherry, hot pepper sauce and lemon to soup pot. Cover and simmer for about 20 minutes. Remove lemon. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Makes about 6 servings.

DOC MCCABE'S OTTER ISLAND TURTLE SOUP

Here's an easier version of turtle soup from the new "Rick Black's Wild Game Chilies, Soups & Stews" by the veteran outdoorsman and outdoor cook, who lives in Burlington, Iowa.

  • 3 pints water, seasoned with 1 tablespoon sea salt
  • 1 pound turtle meat
  • 2 cups tomato soup
  • 1 white onion, chopped
  • 1 celery stalk, chopped
  • 1 green bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 cup barley
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 teaspoons lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup dry red wine

Bring water to a boil in a large stockpot. Add the turtle meat, tomato soup and vegetables, and cook for about 60 minutes. Add the barley; cook 30 minutes more. Add the remaining ingredients and simmer about 30 minutes. Check for seasoning and serve hot.

-- "Rick Black's Wild Game Chilies, Soups & Stews" by Rick Black (Stackpole, 2008, $14.95).


Arlene Burnett can be reached at aburnett@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1577. First Published June 26, 2008 4:00 AM


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