There’s nothing better on a frosty Georgia evening than settling in for a big bowl of warm turtle soup. Now, I don’t mind eating turtle the way some people do. The meat has an incredible meaty, beefy flavor and an extremely unique texture, similar to alligator or squid meat. Even better, turtle shells, bones and fat produce a rich, flavorful stock under the right conditions, making it the perfect meat option for soup.
For those of you who are turned off by the idea of eating the shelled critters, I have to tell you — that’s a pretty new-age way of thinking.
Even before America was America, we were cooking up turtle soup. European sailors during the Age of Exploration encountered turtles in the West Indies and started cooking them up the Caribbean way, spiced and flavorful. The creatures started being sold by the pound in markets in just about every form imaginable, from dried and roasted to live and kickin’.
Even Londoners indulged in a bit of terrapin or snapper stew, offering both options up to guests at taverns and dining room tables. Cookbooks from the era describe elaborate preparations and parties called “turtle frolics,” which were similar to the pig pickings and oyster roasts of today. People were smitten and their taste buds danced at the sight of the slowest moving reptile. Turtle meat fell out of fashion shortly after the Depression, save for a few places in the South, most especially New Orleans and swampy areas in the Carolinas, where they still cook it up right.
My own first experience with turtle soup was admittedly strange. Like many of you, I had never before thought about eating turtle. It wasn’t even a possibility, so far as I knew. But then, one afternoon while I was visiting with my grandparents, my Uncle Craig showed up. Craig is a big man, over 6-foot tall and easily 300 pounds, and as Southern as the day is long. His accent twangs so thickly that even I have trouble understanding him from time to time. He asked me if I wanted to join him on a hunting trip. I’m no hunter, but he insisted.
“Come help me catch some cooter,” he begged.
Now, I don’t want to be indelicate, but I had only ever heard the word ‘cooter’ used in reference to something entirely different. You can imagine my confusion. My eyebrows had to be just about completely drawn up into my hairline when I asked him what in the world he meant. He laughed and laughed at me before explaining himself.
And then, out of curiosity, I joined him on the hunt.
Cooter hunting is not a task recommended for the faint of heart, at least not the way my Uncle Craig does it. We went wading into waist-high water, walking slowly so as not to muddy up the water, and poked a metal pole into the mud every so often to try and scare out prey out of the muskrat dens they typically like to hide in. Whenever we found one, Uncle Craig showed me how to put all my fingers together in a cone-shape so that I could reach in and grab a turtle by its tail.
As you can imagine, I did not — under any circumstances — want to stick my bare hand in one of those dens to attempt and grab a snapping turtle by its tail, sight unseen. But he did.
Over and over, seemingly fearlessly, Uncle Craig dug his hands into stump holes, briars, tree roots and dens. I was quite happily relegated to holding the sack we would carry our catch back in.
“Here we go, here we go,” Uncle Craig yelled out when he finally grabbed hold of one. He yanked it out by the tail, thick as a log, and held it up for me to see. Boy, was that one pissed off critter. It was the size of a hubcap and its mouth opened and shut furiously, like it’d like nothing better than to tear off one of my fingers and have it for dinner. “Open it up, go on,” he instructed and then lowered the turtle into the sack, which I toted home with all the terror and pride I assume people always feel on their first hunting trip.
When we got home, it was time to clean that bad boy. If hunting for a turtle sounds like too much for you, cleaning one is not any better. So much so that I’m not going to get into the details of it here. Trust me when I say it’s a messy and not at all pleasant business. My suggestion? Find a family member with some experience hunting and trapping and offer them some of your soup in exchange for help cleaning your turtles. If you don’t get any takers and hunting for your own turtle doesn’t sound all that appealing anyway, I suggest searching the market (or the internet) for wild snapping turtle.
Asian food markets are usually more likely to have it than your local Kroger or Ingles. If you still can’t find any, you can substitute alligator, frog legs, or a combination of chicken thighs, pork shoulder and clams in for this recipe.
Here’s what you need for ‘Cooter’ Soup:
♦ 1 ½ pounds turtle meat
♦ 1½ cup unsalted butter
♦ 1 cup flour
♦ ½ cup finely diced onion
♦ ½ cup finely diced celery
♦ 4 garlic cloves, minced
♦ 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
♦ 1 green bell pepper, minced
♦ ¼ cup green onion, finely sliced
♦ 1 18-ounce can crushed tomatoes
♦ 3 bay leaves
♦ 1 tablespoon sweet paprika
♦ 2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
♦ 3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
♦ ½ cup dry sherry
♦ ½ teaspoon cayenne, or to taste
♦ 2 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
♦ 1 quart beef stock
♦ Salt and black pepper to taste
Here’s how you make it:
Melt one cup of unsalted butter in a heavy bottomed saucepan, whisk in the flour, and cook, whisking every so often, until it forms a peanut butter colored roux. Set aside. It will take about 10 minutes.
Chop the turtle meat as coarse or fine as you want. Then, in a large saucepan or dutch oven, melt the unsalted butter over medium-high heat and toss in the diced meat. Saute until it is nicely browned.
Lower the heat to medium and add both types of onions, celery, and green pepper. Cook for about five minutes and then add the garlic. Cook for another minute or so, until the garlic is aromatic and the vegetables are tender. Add the tomatoes, season with salt and black pepper, and cook for 10 minutes.
Add the beef stock, Worcestershire sauce, cayenne, paprika and bay leaves. Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer. Simmer for 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Skim off any impurities that rise to the surface.
Whisk in the roux, simmer until thickened and smooth. Add the thyme. Simmer for another 15 minutes.
Finish the soup with sherry, parsley, lemon juice, and diced hard-boiled eggs. Stir to combine and simmer for another minute or two. Add salt, black pepper, and more lemon juice to taste. Serve on its own or with rice.