JIM CARTER (originally published March 20, 2012)
- Common Snapping Turtle, Chelydra serpentina, hand-colored lithograph, 1842
Last summer, OKRA featured an interesting piece on the snapping turtle ( Turtle Dayby Drew Swanson) and Dickie Brennan’s famous recipe for the elegant and delectable New Orleans Turtle Soup, but I knew the discussion would not be complete without mention of South Carolina Cooter Stew. (“Cooter” arises from kuta, the word for turtle in the Bambara and Malinké languages, brought to America by Africans.)
Recently, Melinda and I attended my 45th high school reunion in the Piedmont region of South Carolina. One of my classmates, whom I had not seen in many years, had become a preacher and as he said a few words before our meal in a rich Southern preacher’s kind of baritone voice, I recalled the annual turtle stew picnics at his father’s home. His father was the local veterinarian and it was his way of thanking the many farmers and pet owners for their business. I recall the large pots usually used for washing cloths or scalding hogs that were filled with vegetables and snapping turtle, or “cooter” meat.
To me cooter stew typically was just lagniappe, following a night of sport. When my brother and I were adolescents, we often would go down to the pond on the farm where we grew up late in the evening, bare-footed and jeans rolled up to set out cooter hooks. First a stake would be driven near the edge. Then a large hook tied to a wire leader and heavy line was attached. Finally, we used toads that we found around the farmstead as bait. The bait was thrown out into the water, and the procedure was repeated around the pond.
Early the next morning we returned to the pond and pulled in the hooks to see what the night had presented us. Often the hooks were bare; the bait taken without reward. One morning the first two hooks we retrieved had very large angry water moccasins. Water moccasins are among the most deadly, vicious creatures on earth. They were writhing trying to get off the hooks with their mouths open showing the white insides with fangs which alone could frighten the life out of a young boy. (Looking back, how close to water moccasins were we during those evenings in bare feet around the edges of the old pond?) However we always had a few cooters.
Size mattered and the larger the better. One could tell by weight whether there was a cooter on the line. We’d pull it in slowly. The cooter would resist until it broke the surface. Then it would thrash around snapping at everything in site. They have vice-grip-like jaws. I recall once putting a metal bottle cap in one’s jaws. The cap was immediately crushed. They could break sizable sticks, and once they clamped down they didn’t let go. It was said that if one clamped down on one’s finger it would not let go until there was thunder.
After extracting our hooks and dispatching the cooters, it was time to clean them. The jaws worked long after death, so the first thing in the cleaning process was to remove the head. Remove the feet and tail. Maybe scald it, and remove the bottom of the shell from the top. Then remove the meat. Cleaning cooters was the least fun. But after the night of sport, it was a necessary step to get to the stew.
Then it was time to cook the stew. I don’t know whether the recipe we used was ever written down. It likely started with celery, carrots and onions in a little lard. Then cooter meat and broth, perhaps beef, were added, and the meat was cooked until tender. It was said to taste like chicken (isn’t that what they say about alligator and rattlesnake, also?). At some point in the process, more fresh vegetables from the farm garden were added. I recall tomatoes and perhaps beans and corn. The addition of seasonal vegetables distinguishes South Carolina cooter stew from other regional variants. Seasonings likely included salt, black pepper, Worcestershire sauce, thyme, and red pepper flakes. And if in season likely there would have been OKRA!