“HOW MUCH AM I OFFERED FOR THIS GOOD COOK? SHE IS AN EXCELLENT COOK: CAN MAKE THREE KINDS OF MOCK TURTLE SOUP FROM BEEF, FOWLS OR FISH”
The above is an excerpt from the Charleston, SC Courier on March 22, 1865 recounting the Freedmen’s Jubilee Parade, which featured a black man on a float with a woman and two children whom he was pretending to auction off “for good Confederate money”. He played his part with vigor and conviction, causing much mirth and merriment in the crowd of black faces.
I have always been a fan of turtle soup. My parents would often visit the Doc and Nananne in New Orleans (my great Aunt and Uncle) and they would return with tales of delicious turtle soup. They brought back two cans of turtle soup for me to try. The rich, dark stew with a splash of dry sherry was absolute heaven to my 8 year old palate I have never forgotten it. And so, since I could not attend the Grand Opening, I decided to celebrate Food and Wine by recreating that taste of my childhood.
But first, a little history of turtle soup. For many years turtle soup was considered the finest of fine dining. In the early 20th century, the Villa Marguerita, Charleston’s finest hotel of the time, had a $20 bowl of turtle soup on the menu. Turtle meat was considered a delicacy, exotic because the meat comes from 5 different places on the turtle, all with different tastes. A large snapping turtle is said to contain seven distinct types of meat, each reminiscent of pork, chicken, beef, shrimp, veal, fish or goat. Locally, this dish of English extraction did not survive in Charleston households into the twentieth century. Although Charlestonians continued to hire black cooks, few were trained in making Eurocentric foods, and so the food ways that have survived and that we consider Lowcountry style generally have their roots in Africa, but not turtle soup..
For many years sea turtles were the meat of choice, so the real thing was out of the question. Where to find turtle meat today? Of course, cooters are ubiquitous, but I live in an apartment, and dressing them would be an issue. I’m not sure that I am prepared to grab the head, chop it off and hang it upside down to drain. The high cost of sea turtle meat led to the creation of Mock Turtle Soup. Using the same rich broth and a variety of meats in the broth, Mock Turtle Soup imitates not just the flavor but the texture and look of the real thing. As an aside, I used chicken livers snipped into small pieces, and that dark flavor is absolutely correct, but you might choose to use dark chicken meat, even surimi (artificial crab) or mild fish filets for this. I plan to use ground venison or bison next time in place of the beef.
Mock Turtle Soup — My Recipe
1. To one and one half quarts of water add one pound raw lean ground beef and one half pound raw chicken livers sliced small, three bay leaves, 1 teaspoon salt.
Set to boil.
2. Take one half stick of butter heated with flour, brown to make a rue for thickening. Set aside.
3. Dice both fine and medium:
One yellow onion
One red bell pepper
Two stalks of celery.
Put these in two tablespoons butter on medium high for five minutes, and then high until vegetables are cooked with a char. Add this to the broth. Deglaze the pan with dry sherry, scrape bits and throw all into the pot along with
One can beef bouillon
one cup tomato ketchup
One large can crushed tomatoes
Stir this all together and bring to a boil. Add to this
1 teaspoon each of allspice and thyme,3 tablespoons Worcestershire Sauce
Juice of ½ lemon.
4 eggs in shell
Simmer all together for at least 45 minutes, 1 1/2 hours is better. Remove hard boiled eggs and macerate. Add back to thicken the soup. Add rue (step 2) to thicken to stew consistency.
To serve, plate soup piping hot and garnish with parsley and dry sherry.