Guest Post: Eating Turtles and American Identity

The Historical Cooking Project is pleased to share Becky Libourel Diamond's guest post, "Eating Turtles and American Identity." This piece is based on her book, The Thousand Dollar Dinner.

“Green turtle is the epicurean soup, par excellence.”
—Eunice C. Corbett, Good Housekeeping, March 1894

Due to the widespread popularity of turtle soup,
the use of 
decorative turtle-shaped tureens became a distinctive way
 to showcase this delicacy at the table.



It might sound unusual today, but turtle was one of the most popular and fashionable American foods from the 1600s through the early twentieth century. The green sea turtle was the most prized of all. Turtle gourmands described its meat as having a unique, rich flavor, comparable to lobster or veal. In his 1867 handbook The Market Assistant, Thomas Farrington De Voe asserts, “This fine turtle is well known to the epicure for its delicious steaks and the savory soup which it affords. The flesh appears to be of three colors, and it is said to combine the taste of fish, flesh, and fowl.”

Green sea turtles were once plentiful enough to serve as a sustenance food, consumed by Caribbean, Hawaiian, and Polynesian islanders as well as European explorers and pirates as they made their way around the globe. As noted by The Edinburgh Encyclopedia (1832), the flesh of the turtle was considered extremely nutritious and an excellent restorative in cases of debility and emaciation. These creatures of tropical and subtropical waters soon became a highly sought-after delicacy when sailing merchants began to ship them from the West Indies to England and America.

Sent to U.S. port cities including Philadelphia, New York and Baltimore, the turtles were kept alive in large carts, fed with cabbage leaves and beet-tops, or auctioned right from the docks to caterers and tavern owners. Since just one turtle could feed quite a crowd, (some weighed over three hundred pounds), turtle soup was frequently the featured dish on inn menus and at large feasts or festivals. Demand for turtle was so high that hosts would advertise these upcoming events in the city’s newspapers and sometimes even sell tickets in advance.

But the extreme popularity of sea turtles caused them to become overfished fairly quickly, showing a decline as early as 1700. As they became more and more scarce, ingenious alternatives soon emerged, including the use of terrapin, which was fondly referred to as “the bird.” Also known as bay tortoises, they were found in brackish water along the eastern and southern coasts of the United States and soon became just as prized as their ocean-dwelling relatives. Although much smaller in size (weighing about four pounds), they were local, abundant, and produced a similar tasting soup—even referred to as exquisite.

Eventually terrapin numbers also began dwindling due to overfishing, but resourceful cooks came up with yet one more alternative—snapping turtles. Today, snapper soup is the variety of turtle soup available for purchase in many parts of the U.S., since both sea turtles and terrapins are considered endangered or threatened in most locations. Like a richer, more complex cousin to Maryland’s crab soup, snapper soup is a deep reddish color, thick with vegetables, potatoes, hard-boiled egg, and lots of tender turtle meat.

Before I developed an interest in historical cooking, this is the only type of turtle soup I had ever known. But I discovered the wealth of other turtle dishes popular in nineteenth century America when doing research for my first book, Mrs. Goodfellow: The Story of America’s First Cooking School. Although I didn’t find evidence of Mrs. Goodfellow teaching turtle cookery or serving it in her shop (she was mainly a pastry cook), I did learn about its significance through reading about several of her contemporaries. One of them was James Parkinson, the son of confectioners George and Eleanor Parkinson, and a top-ranked confectioner in his own right. He eventually took over his parents’ business and established fine dining in several Philadelphia locations, offering innovative, seasonal fare in addition to his family’s famous confections.

Parkinson’s creations and restaurants were renowned in the Philadelphia area for many decades of the nineteenth century, but he is best known for an amazing, seventeen-course feast in 1851 referred to as the “Thousand Dollar Dinner” (since it reputedly cost $1,000, an enormous sum equal to over $32,000 today). This dinner was part of a culinary duel between two groups of wealthy gentlemen – one from New York and one from Philadelphia. These two “clubs of good-livers” apparently “spent one day in every year and all their spare cash in trying to rival each other’s banquets.” 



The first part of the competition was a magnificent banquet held at Delmonico’s, New York’s finest restaurant. Not to be outdone, the Philadelphia men invited the New Yorkers to Parkinson’s, their city’s most elegant eatery. The result was an astonishing meal unlike anything the men had ever experienced. During the dinner, they stood up three different times in appreciation, not only to acknowledge that the Philadelphians had “conquered them triumphantly,” but also to unanimously declare that the meal “far surpassed any similar entertainment which had ever been given in this country.”

Parkinson


When I read about The Thousand Dollar Dinner, I immediately thought of contemporary cooking competitions where one chef tries to outdo another. But the fact that these gastronomic contests actually date back to the nineteenth century prompted me to tell the story of this little-known component of American food history. As I started doing the research, organizing each chapter to mirror a course on the menu emerged as a natural structure for the book. Many of the unique and unusual dishes are no longer popular (or available) today, but it was the various turtle dishes and their preparation methods that stood out the most to me. In addition to the luxurious green turtle soup, Parkinson’s menu featured turtle steak, a rich dish called caliepash (the fatty, gelatinous portion found along the turtle’s upper shell, stewed with sherry and other seasonings, then baked in the turtle’s own shell that had been lined with a pastry crust), and diamond-back terrapin, served in a creamy white sauce.

Although sea turtle and terrapin dishes are no longer featured on American dining tables, I recommend giving snapper soup a try if you can find it. And while you are savoring its delicious flavor, think back to James Parkinson’s remarkable feast that showcased regional specialties and laid the groundwork for a distinctively American style cuisine.


Becky Libourel Diamond is a food writer and research historian. Her second book, The Thousand Dollar Dinner (Westholme, 2015), tells the unique story of a nineteenth century culinary challenge between Philadelphia restaurateur James Parkinson and the Delmonico family of New York. She is also the author of Mrs. Goodfellow: The Story of America's First Cooking School (Westholme, 2012). She is currently partnering with fellow epicurean Max Tucci to write his family’s story of Oscar’s Delmonico restaurant and seeking a publisher for a book about Pierre Blot, America’s first celebrity chef. She lives in Yardley, PA.


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