Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Prepare a Tureen of Turtle Soup Tonite

Turtle Soup is not a dish one sees everyday. Difficult to find outside the New Orleans and Louisiana Coast, most know the dish, potage a la tortue, from the 1988 movie Babette's Feast. In Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook, a recipe for Turtle Soup can be found on page 136.

While supplies of fresh water turtles, the only kind lawfully sold as food, are abundant in the New Orleans area to make Turtle Soup, in other parts of the country, the dish is illegal. According to Wikipedia, many turtle species are listed as "threatened" or "endangered" and their hunting and capture is illegal. The loss of an adult turtle can seriously harm populations of the amphibian as breeding adults are difficult to replace. Fortunately for those who don't live in New Orleans, turtle meat can be bought from specialty markets or by mail order. Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook has a four-page section that focuses on hard-to-find ingredients ranging from durum flour to seafood starting on page 424. Ordering the meat also solves the problem of dressing a live, snapping turtle.

Soups have a long history. In a piece by Andrew F. Smith at cheftalk.com, he states that boiling foods gained steam when reliable water- and heat-proof containers were developed around 3,000 BCE. Boiling was a huge innovation in cooking technique. Boiling cooked a submersed food completely and evenly unlike open air fires where our ancestors had to regularly turn their food in order to cook it. Also, previously discarded animal parts like the bones suddenly became edible, with boiling techniques able to extract the nutritional value of the discards, making broths.

In 1794, Jean Baptiste Gilbert Payplat dis Julien opened a restaurant in Boston that specialized in soups. Nicknamed "The Prince of Soups," gourmands of the era flocked to Julien's establishment including French foodie Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, a politician and gastronome who visited American during the height of the French Revolution. While Julien created Julien Soup, his specialty was the making of Turtle Soup.

Turtle soup entered the American mainstream at the very top. The dish had become popular with the upper classes. With turtle so expensive to import, only the wealthiest could afford real Turtle Soup. Over time, a mock turtle soup was developed that used veal that could be enjoyed by the middle class. Janet Clarkson of kitchenproject.com states that the soup was a regular item on the menu of the Lord Mayors banquet in London while The Old Foodie recounts that turtle soup was part of the menu for the Corporation of the City of London's banquet for the Allied Sovereigns: the English Prince Regent and future King George IV, Tsar Alexander I of Russia and the King of Prussia,Friedrich Wilhelm III. President Taft so loved the dish that he brought a special chef with him to the White House in order to make it.

The dish was so popular that writer Lewis Carroll praised it in his book, Alice in Wonderland. Gui Alinat of Tampabay.com uses the verse to open his article about Turtle Soup:

"Beautiful Soup, so rich and green,
Waiting in a hot tureen!
Who for such dainties would not stoop?"
In "A Seafood Cook's Companion" on page 44, Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook discusses the possible scarcity of finding turtle and suggests that some home cooks rely on oxtail or veal as substitutes.

Wikipedia: "Turtle Soup" 04/01/08
ChefTalk.com: "History of Soup"
Kitchen Project: "Turtle Soup and Mock Turtle Soup" 03/01
The Old Foodie: "Turtle Season" 06/18/07
Tampabay.com: "Home Cooks, Please Don't Mock Turtle Soup" 04/27/05

photo courtesy of qmnonic, used under this Creative Commons license

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