Rich in Turtles Species, about three dozen are native to Alabama. Now, this doesn’t count the eccentric Turtlin’ Southern folks, we just accept the quirks…
- ‘Well, don’t worry, she’ll come out of her shell..’
- ‘He’s not slow, he’s just like his daddy’s side of the family- smart as all get out, but not one to show off’.
- ‘You know she was brought up a Hard Shell Baptist..’
- ‘Slow down now, remember the Turtle ended up beating the Hare’.
- An ‘Old Moss Back’ whatever the persuasion…
Southerners love eccentricity. If something odd, embarrassing or the Lord forgive- immoral happens- we’re eccentric- we don’t usually call it by a harsh label Depending on the severity of the situation,
- We might refer to it as: the ‘incident’
- We might say- ‘No doubt about it, he’s in a fix’
- A bit worse- ‘Well, there’s no denying it, she’s got herself in a pre-dicament’
- Or- ‘Seems like he’s just up and gone, nobody’s seen hair nor hide of him’…
You’ve caught me, I’ve been Turtlin’ – it’s a condition closely aligned with hibernatin’ – not actually going to sleep for a long stretch of time but a slowing down, a pulling in, a staying put, close to home- some might call it idlin’, I call it Turtlin’. It’s an eccentric thing to do, but highly enjoyable- reading or letting my mind wander. Aunt DawDaw who was an eccentric herself, once brought a distant cousin to a family gathering- this cousin had acquired the nickname of Turt. Her real name was Gertrude. Cousin Turt. Smart as a whip, pretty as a picture- Turt was also talented- she emitted whistlin’ sounds and birdsongs intermittently while fluttering her hands like small birds and rolling her eyes toward the sky. If someone told a funny or strange story, her little rosebud mouth would form a perfect O and she would giggle from behind her hand- the next minute she could recite a whole passage from…who knows? Shakespeare. We didn’t have upper case letters to describe her condition. We liked her, she made an event interesting- when Turt’s mind would wander -DawDaw exclaimed, ‘She does that, she’s just turtlin’ …When I’m turtlin’ myself… I pull inside my shell, read for days on end…preferably old cookbooks… my favorite form of rich literary history. If you’re lucky, I’ll test drive a recipe and share it.
This time- I was turtlin’ in cookbooks and found recipes that filled me with fear, trepidation and abject horror. I’m not heavy into Wild Game cookery, the ex-otic sort of roughin’ it in my cookbook. My idea of roughing it is this: I will cut up a chicken for an Emergency Batch of Fried Chicken, I will peel and devein Shrimp- however Cleaning or Skinning anything is outside of my comfort zone… doesn’t mean I won’t eat it, just that I won’t cook it. Southern cookbooks, the real ones- generally include Wild Game, captured by Sportsmen which abound in the South. In this last turtlin’ expedition I found:
- Rabbit Stew with Dumplings
- Fried Squirrel – the cook said squirrels were very nutritious due to eating a diet almost exclusively of pine nuts. ???
- Venison Haunch – a big pot is needed
- Wild Boar Jerky – hide nor hair y’all, think hide nor hair..
Then I ran across a Soup…which I have eaten a fair amount of times in my long and varied life. It was so favored by Winston Churchill when he was staying in Williamsburg Virginia, he called room service after a fancy banquet and asked for leftovers, when told there was plenty, Churchill had the whole terrine brought to his room! This same soup is eaten at fancy restaurants and apparently was all day picnic fare by the river and of course, some of our best Southern cuisine came from pore folks who scavenged local creeks and streams. I’ve never thought about how this soup was made- I’ve eaten it in fine dining establishments, at country club luncheons and quaint restaurants on cobbled lanes and a few years ago, at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. Their version was very good, had a distinct flavor with little bits of meat floating around. If you haven’t noticed, I’m taking this slow. I’m working up to it, trying not to draw into my shell. Remember Cousin Turt? She earned her nickname when Uncle Eldred brought home a turtle he found in the middle of the road- he said he liked to never got it in the cardboard box- and it wasn’t a common Box Turtle either. Cousin Turt was fascinated – stuck her hand in the box and boy, was she in a fix! That Snappin’ Turtle, grabbed her finger, she was whistlin’ Dixie- loud! Uncle Eldred laughed his sides off, the startled turtle drew back in it’s shell and forever afterward, Gertrude bore the shame and became Cousin Turt. I’m guessing you know by now, the soup in Churchill’s terrine was Terrapin Soup or by it’s common name- Turtle Soup. I have no less than 6 cookbooks with either dainty versions – like ‘Open two cans of Turtle Consomme’ , or the clinical and neat version which just says- 2 pounds of cleaned turtle meat. (I ran that to ground when a friend told me Turtles are actually farmed now- then cleaned and packaged and sold by the pound- who knew? I would personally like to meet a Turtle Farmer!)
Now, you have to know this is coming… The older cookbooks- where Delta Debutantes, Socialites and even Church ladies- our Matriarchs collect their best recipes for philanthropic purposes have full blown recipes for Turtle Soup. I had to wonder…really? The white gloved actually did this? Apparently they did though one did name her Turtle Soup after the cook! This portion should carry a warning- *Contains graphic material, not suitable for weak stomachs or the faint of heart. Listen in to some of the instructions:
- ‘Steam turtle meat, carefully remove bones and gristle.’ What do turtle bones look like?
- ‘Boil 5 terrapin in boiling water, chop off the head, pull the meat from the head and discard.’ Y’all…that’s brutal.
- ‘After they are well cleaned, parboil the turtle meat, then pick it to pieces. Season highly…’ How do you clean a turtle well??
- ‘First cut up the head, then put in the pot to boil with the rest of the turtle- shell on, when done enough to remove the under shell, take it up and pick to pieces. Clean the top shells well.’ Oh lord, y’all… how in the world??
- ‘Drop four turtles into boiling water, boil one hour. Take them out, remove skin from legs and feet.’ Okay now, really… I’m dyin’ here…
- ‘Clean thoroughly, removing the round liver which contains the gall. Put the eggs found within…’ (at least these are freshwater, but come on now…)
- Remember those top turtle shells? Listen to this: ‘Keep top shells in simmering water. Before serving, remove top shells, make sure they are well cleaned and dry carefully. Ladle Terrapin Soup into top shells.’ Well, A for effort on presentation!
All of the old recipes call for highly seasoning the broth, adding often an entire pound of butter; some soups (not clear broths) are topped off with half and half, chopped egg yolks – chicken I presume, a dusting of cayenne pepper and salt- and this: no measurements- Just the ingredient is listed- Madeira Wine. And most call for a small wine glass of Madeira to either pour into the soup before eating or just sip alongside. I presume this was the distinct flavor at Commander’s Palace. For a teetotaler like me, knowing what I know now? I might have to have a very large glass or even the whole bottle of that Madeira! Okay this has taken a lot out of me… I’m heading back into my shell, Turtlin’ again, but before I go, let me say- ‘Like all good Southern tales, this one is part truth, part myth and part outright lies!’
Love y’all, Camellia
*I do not have a bowl of Turtle Soup for you- sorry, I just did not have the courage to try it- in any form! *Jeremy Minard was a sport to provide the wonderful photographs of the non-endangered freshwater turtles right here in Alabama! Find him at www.jeremy-miniard.fineartamerica.com