LEIGH WRIGHT (this article was first published on July 16, 2012)
There are times in life camouflaged by the present moment. In May 2011, I found myself disguising my lack of knife skills and kitchen knowledge in checkered pants, a white cap, and borrowed chef jacket stitched with the iconic CP patch on the left shoulder. My conscious memory of working at Commander’s Palace recalls cleaning walk-ins, cutting 50 pounds of onions at a time, and emptying the capricious, liquid magma contents of three 50-gallon kettles through a chinoise. Unsurprisingly, my subconscious remembers the subtle discoveries. Covertly I learned proper sanitation procedures, basic knife skills, and the techniques for making boiling vats of veal stock, demi glace, and CP’s legendary turtle soup.
This is where my fascination for reptilian recipes originated. I pondered the mysteries – how many turtles were actually in the 20-pound sack I was tossing into the kettle? How exactly had that meat been obtained? And where did it all come from? New Orleans is famous for bringing the rich and warming nuances of game meat in from the campsites and onto white tablecloths. However, the utilization of turtle in recipes spans from Texas to Florida and up to Tennessee. Served in piquante, soup, pies, and even ragouts, each region of the South has designed its own rustic or refined version of a dish from this reptile.
There are multiple species of turtle or tortoise that have been and are eaten by humans. The most common, especially in Louisiana, is the snapping turtle, alligator snapping turtle, and soft-shell turtles. These provide the most meat per turtle and many of these are abundant in swamps, lakes, and shallow rivers. Sometimes easily caught turtles provide the meat and fat to make delectable and rich dishes.
Cajuns from south Louisiana refer to it as caouanne, the French word for loggerhead or turtle, however, turtle soup did not originate in the South. It was common in the United Kingdom and the northeastern United States while America was becoming independent, although in the UK and New England green turtle is typically used. And although turtle soup and stew has fallen away from the culinary mainstream the meat is still dished in restaurants, especially in New Orleans where turtle meat has always been abundant. Recipes have changed over time, but many still rely heavily on ingredients like those in OKRA’s recipe here. Local New Orleans’ restaurants Brennan’s, Galatoire’s, and Commander’s Palace (if you ate turtle soup there in the summer of 2011, I, Leigh Wright, most likely made it. You’re welcome?) are world-renowned for their versions. They generally serve the dish with a garnish of fresh parsley, and hot French bread. It is one of the best treats of old New Orleans you can find.
On the opposite side of the spectrum is the Gopher tortoise, a magnificent species that is threatened and endangered. Georgia’s state reptile and Florida’s state tortoise have been eaten for hundreds, if not thousands of years, by humans in the southeastern US. Also called the “Hoover Chicken” (or just “hoover” in Alabama), this free supply of meat has been consumed since the first American inhabitants in St. Augustine, FL. Sadly conservation laws in multiple states now protect due to over killing and destruction of habitat the tortoise. West of Mobile, it is illegal to possess or hunt these tortoises, and in Alabama the gopher is categorized as a “game species” although hunting is not allowed. The main threat to gopher tortoises is caused by humans (surprise) and as The University of Florida Conservation Clinic Center for Governmental Responsibility Levin College of Law describes, “…[they are] significantly vulnerable to habitat modifications, environmental alterations, human disturbances, or human exploitation…” With limited funding and manpower for the creation of conservation laws to protect the species it is threatened, yet hopefully with other meat more readily available protection will no longer be needed in the future.
It is always fascinating to me how simple foods from before our time can evolve and be sculpted into new dishes. Turtle soup brings the warmth of a hearth and rich goodness of a grandmother’s cooking to the consumer, even if they do not realize the long and involved history of the ingredients. As with many other game meats, if you haven’t tried it then I suggest you let the fearful excuses drop just one time so that you may appreciate all of nature’s bounty.