Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio and Turtle Soup?

Turtle soup might have disappeared completely in the U.S. had it not been for the Internet. The web has allowed those selling exotic goods to find consumers, and farm-raised turtle meat can be ordered online.
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With all due respect to Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, we know -- thanks to ESPN, the New York Yankees and our fathers -- exactly what happened to Joe DiMaggio. The baseball hero hung up his cleats after the 1951 season and retired from the sport. A few years later, he eloped with Marilyn Monroe.

For over a decade, DiMaggio was a star of the baseball field. For over a century, turtle soup was a star of the dinner table. Yet most Americans don't have a clue what happened to turtle soup. In fact, the vast majority of them have never even tasted this concoction. I have only eaten "mock turtle soup," which is usually made with calf's head or oxtail.

The real McCoy is nearly impossible to find on restaurant menus today, and only a handful of eateries serve the mock variety. That's amazing considering this soup was once a favorite American dish. John Adams ate it several times during the Continental Congress. In 1815, the Philadelphia Gazette advertised a nine-hour banquet featuring turtle soup.

British novelist Frederick Marryat visited the U.S. and declared in 1839 that one of the two "great delicacies in America" was terrapin -- a species of turtle found in brackish swamps. On July 4, 1841, a White House dinner featured a main course prepared from a 300-pound turtle.

Just as there are regional versions of chowder, there were dueling versions of turtle soup. One recipe originated in Philadelphia, and the other hailed from Baltimore. Mark Twain preferred the creamier version from Philly, and he wasn't the only author who adored turtle soup.

Lewis Carroll, who wrote Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, rhapsodized about turtle soup with a poem, whose opening lines proclaimed:

Beautiful soup, so rich and green,
Waiting in a hot tureen!

Once the Gilded Age arrived, turtle had firmly established itself as power food. In 1880, a Washington Post reporter called terrapin vital to any dinner party "laying claim to being a pretentious affair." For more than a century, members of the Hoboken Turtle Club gathered to enjoy this fishy soup. Being a member, wrote the New York Times in 1893, established each man "as a citizen of worth." John Jay and Alexander Hamilton were among the Club's famous members.

Turtle soup remained popular in the early 20th century. It was on the menu for state dinners during William Howard Taft's presidency. Mrs. Taft hired a special cook to prepare the dish, and the president preferred to drink champagne with his soup.

By the middle of the century, however, it was tougher to find turtle soup on menus or in recipe books. A 1947 article in Life magazine helped to explain why. The ingredients, including sea turtles and bottles of well-aged sherry, "are not all easy to obtain." Indeed, terrapins in U.S. coastal areas had been overhunted to the point that cooks were forced to seek turtles from more distant waters.

Chefs faced other obstacles. As Life explained, the reptile was not always cooperative. Terrapins are "alert, surly and shifty," the magazine noted. "Sometimes they snap at their handlers and they often escape and hide under radiators when the cooks come to get them."

Turtle soup might have disappeared completely in the U.S. had it not been for the Internet age. The web has allowed those selling exotic goods to find willing consumers, and farm-raised turtle meat can be ordered online.

The growing interest in historic or retro-cuisine is also helping to keep turtle soup from vanishing. Genuine turtle soup shows up in surprising places, including a bedroom community of Chicago where Moe Joe's serves the real deal. On her blog, Four Pounds Flour, Sarah Lohman posted this recipe for an authentic turtle soup.

Is there any chance the dish could go mainstream again? The Travel Channel doesn't seem to think so. Last month, TC's show Bizarre Foods featured turtle soup. Even in Georgia's Low Country, tastes have changed -- perhaps irreversibly. As the co-authors of The Savannah Cookbook observe, "the soup is little more than a memory. Turtle meat is a strong flavor that most locals are no longer accustomed to."

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