Friday, April 8, 2016

Mock Turtle Soup: "Tongue and Cheek" Cookery in the Chesapeake

Mock Turtle Soup

Turtles have historically been a very important part of the American diet in the 18th-19th centuries. Most species of turtle are edible but the one that was most highly prized and therefore most popular in and around the waters of the Chesapeake Bay was terrapin.

Terrapin is a small edible turtle found along the coastal marshes of the eastern US. It was an important part of the diet for people living along the estuary of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland going back to the early days of settlement, and even further back to the Native America Indians who inhabited the region. 

Diamond Back Terrapins (source:Wikipedia)

According to documentation found in the America Eats project (a project funded by the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression to record American culture among other things), slave indentures in Maryland bore the stipulation that terrapin should not be fed to the slaves more often than twice per week on the grounds that it was so easily obtainable that slave owners would deprive their slaves of other types of flesh meat to save money. Not surprisingly, based on easy access and its general popularity, the terrapin population was drastically reduced by the end of the 19th century. Nowadays, legislation protects the terrapin from further decimation.

Prior to the days when legislation curtailed the harvesting of turtles, they could have been roasted whole in hot coals; however, the preferred way of serving them was to make them into a rich soup. Historic cookbooks in the Chesapeake region and beyond contain many variations for making these types of thick, rich soups.

Here is a recipe published in a Baltimore cookbook called Domestic Cookery, Useful Receipts and Hints to Young Housekeepers from 1869 by Elizabeth Lea:

Here is another recipe from Fifty Years in a Maryland Kitchen by Mrs. B.C. Howard, 1944. I love how the author remarks that experts consider the soup the best, but the editor does not!  Here is her recipe:

Here is a very straightforward recipe for making a basic turtle soup from 300 Years of Black Cooking in St. Mary's County, Maryland, Published in Cooperation with the 350th Anniversary Committee of St. Mary's County and the Maryland Heritage Committee, 1983 edition:

After looking at these recipes and many other versions of turtle soup, it is clear that there are two distinct ways in which this dish was made. First, the most popular method throughout the 19th century was to make a dark, rich gravy-like broth. These types of soups often contain some or all of the following ingredients:

  • Sweet herbs (parsley, basil, bay leaves, savory, thyme, green onions, lemon thyme, sage, marjoram)
  • An onion stuck with cloves
  • Fresh lemon juice
  • Any actual turtle eggs from the turtle, hard-cooked and chopped on top (hard-cooked chicken eggs could be used if no turtle eggs were found in the turtle)
  • Forcemeat balls made from turtle meat or veal that can be floated in the soup.
  • Use vegetable such as celery, carrots, turnips, etc.
  • A brown flour/butter roux used to darken and thicken the soup
  • Sherry or Madeira, or another wine to add, usually, just before service.

Second, I did find some twentieth century recipes in which the soup has a cream base. However, according to The Amiable Baltomoreans by Francis Beirne, 1951, “Philadelphia, too, is a terrapin city. But to the horror of Baltimoreans, Philadelphians serve their terrapin with a cream sauce! At least such is the scandalous report in Baltimore.”
Nevertheless, blasphemous cream-based recipes for turtle soup can be found in Helen Avalynne Tawes iconic 1964 cookbook, My Favorite Maryland Recipes and another from Maryland's Way, The Hammond-Harwood House Cook Book from 1963.

Turtle Soup in Baltimore Eating Establishments
Here are some advertisements from Baltimore eating establishments in the 19th century offering variations of turtle soup:

Notice the mention of Pectoral Soup at the very bottom!

This ad is from 1880 for the S. Aldon's Baltimore Tavern

Mock Turtle Soup: Tongue and Cheek Cookery, Literally and Figuaratively!

When turtle/terrapin was unavailable either by logistics or economy for making “Real Turtle Soup” as it was often referred to in period recipes, the enterprising cook could make a mock version of it using a calf's head. According to an experienced turtle soup maker and eater in Louisiana in a 2008 article in The New Yorker“You got seven kinds of meat on a turtle. Depending on what part you’re eating, it will taste like turkey, or fish, or pork, or veal.”

I've taken the phrase “tongue in cheek” which refers to not taking things seriously (hence "mock") and re-worked it to "tongue and cheek" to relate to using tongue and cheek meat to mimic the flavor of the turtle soup with an imposter, a calf's head. The meat extracted from the tongue and the cheeks, along with the collagen-rich stock made from the rest of the head gives this soup its rich flavor reminiscent of turtle.  

Indeed, even the first cookbook published by an American in 1796, American Cookery, by Amelia Simmons, contains a recipe “To drefs a Calve’s Head. Turtle fashion”:

Here are several other examples of mock turtle soup from various 19th century American publications:

Catherine Beecher, Miss Beecher's Domestic Receipt Book (New York, 1850)

Anna Maria Collins, The Great Western Cook Book (New York, 1857)

Abby Fisher, What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking (San Francisco, 1881)
Fannie Merritt Farmer, The Boston Cooking School Cook Book (Boston, 1896)

When looking at many mock turtle soup recipes, you can definitely see how they were made to replicate real turtle soup recipes. The following ingredients and instructions represent the ways in which this soup mimics the real deal:

  • Making the Faux Turtle Meat
    • Boil a Calf's Head; Discard the brain.
    • Chop the face meat and tongue, or use the meat to make forcemeat balls to float in the soup.
      Elizabeth Lea, Domestic Cookery (Baltimore, 1869)
  • To mimic real turtle eggs, float balls of chicken egg yolks

  • Mrs. B.C. Howard, Fifty Years in a Maryland Kitchen (1881)

  • Vegetables
    • Root vegetables
    • Celery 
    • Tomatoes
    • Mushrooms. 
  • Darken with a Brown Roux or Fried Sugar 
  • Season with: 
    • Madeira or Sherry Wine
    • Cloves, Mace, Salt, Pepper 
    • Sweet herbs
    • Lemon 

Mock Turtle Soup
Modern Recipe Redaction

(Note: this recipe uses a calf's head which means that it makes a lot! You can substitute with veal stock and half or quarter the recipe, as needed.)

Step 1: Making the Stock from the Calf's Head
1 Calf's Head, Halved or Cut in Thirds (mine came from Marcho Farm, an organic farm in Pennsylvania that prides itself on the ethical treatment of its animals) Make sure the brain and eyeballs are removed prior to cooking.
¼ Cup Apple Cider Vinegar
1 Tablespoon Salt

  • Place the calves head in a very large stock pot (24 quart size) and cover it with cold water.
  • Add the vinegar and salt.
  • Place on the stovetop and heat uncovered until boiling. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer.
  • Simmer for about 2 1/2 hours until the meat starts to fall off the bones.
  • Remember: You will need to check on the stock while it is simmering and remove the large amounts of scum that will float to the top. If you do not remove the scum, the stock will taste harsh and bitter.
  • Into a large storage container, drain the stock through a fine mesh sieve to remove excess scum and and bones or other detritus from the cooking process.
  • Pick off the meat from the cheeks and any other parts of the head you like. 
  • Peel the skin off of the tongue and chop into bite-sized cubes.
  • Place all of the meat into the stock.
  • You can use this stock immediately to complete the recipe for Mock Turtle Soup or you can freeze it for later use.

Step 2: Making the Forcemeat Balls
2 Cups Breadcrumbs, Plain
8 Large Eggs
Grated Rind of 1 Lemon
1 Cup Water
1.5 Teaspoons Salt
1 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
3/4 Teaspoon Ground Nutmeg
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Mace
1 Teaspoon Ground Dried Thyme
2 Tablespoons Dried Italian Parsley
2 Tablespoons Fresh Italian Parsley, Finely Chopped
3 pounds Ground Veal

  1. Heat the oven to 400ยบ F.
  2. Line 1-2 large jelly roll pans or roasting trays with parchment paper and grease.
  3. In a large bowl, mix together the breadcrumbs, eggs and water.
  4. Add the seasonings and herbs. Mix until evenly distributed.
  5. Add the ground veal and mix together gently using a spatula or wooden spoon.
  6. Rolls the meat mixture into small balls measuring 1/2 ounce each. Line them up on the pan.
  7. Bake for 12 minutes.
  8. Yields about 170 mini meatballs.

Step 3: Make the Egg Dumplings (Faux Turtle Eggs)


  • Hard-Boiled Yolks of 18 Eggs
  • Uncooked Whites of 2 Eggs
  1. In a medium bowl, mash the yolks of the eggs. 
  2. Add the uncooked egg whites to the mashed cooked egg yolks and mix until all the evenly blended. 
  3. Refrigerate the egg mixture until it is completely cool. 
  4. Form the egg yolk mixture into small balls (whatever size you choose). 
  5. Drop 2-3 balls at a time into boiling water and cook until the balls harden and rise to the surface of the water, at least 2-3 minutes.

Step 4: Assembling the Soup

4 Ounces Butter (1 Stick)
1 Large Onion Stuck with 12-15 Cloves
2 Large Onions, Chopped
1 Package Green Onions, Chopped
10 Stalks Celery, Chopped
12 Ounces Carrots, Chopped
16 Ounces Mushrooms, Sliced
Herbs (Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, Thyme, Marjoram, Fresh Bay Leaves), Tied into a Bouquet Garni
Juice and Grated Zest of 4 Lemons
Four 6-Ounce Cans Tomato Paste
1 Cup Madeira
1 Teaspoon Grated Nutmeg
2 Teaspoons Ground Mace
2 Tablespoons Dried Parsley
2 Tablespoons Dried Thyme
Salt to Taste
Pepper, To Taste
Calve's Head Stock and Meat (About 10 Quarts)

And . . .
Prepared Forcemeat Balls 
Prepared Faux Turtle Eggs 
2 Cups Sherry
Lemon Slices, to Garnish (optional


  1. Melt the butter in a large pot (16 quart size). Add the chopped onions and salt & pepper. Cook on medium heat until the onions are slightly softened and glistening (about 7-8 minute). Sprinkle the flour over the onions and cook for 2-3 more minutes, or until the flour is cooked. 
  2. Remove from the heat and add the remaining vegetables, herbs, lemon zest and juice, tomato paste, Madeira, and salt and pepper. Mix.
  3. Pour in the calf's head stock.
  4. Place over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Then, reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer until the vegetables are tender. 
  5. Once the vegetables are tender, remove the bouquet garni and the clove-studded onion (discard).
  6. Just before service add the forcemeat balls and egg dumplings and heat.
  7. Garnish soup bowls with sherry and lemon slices, optional. 

Clove-Studded Onion

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