Let’s Have a Turtle Frolic

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A diamond back terrapin. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

When I lived in Ohio, my favorite restaurant was the Springfield Grille in Boardman, not least because they served an excellent turtle soup. While rooting around on the ‘net not long ago, I found this 1891 account of “Trapping the Terrapin. Various Methods of Trapping the Toothsome Turtle” Terrapins are small turtles usually found in fresh or brackish waters of the eastern U.S. Due to over-hunting, terrapins are scarce today so snapping turtle or sea turtle meat is used in soup instead.

But in the 1700s and 1800s, the terrapin population was still large, and folks of that time loved turtle; there are stories from those days of events called “turtle frolics” where attendees were served hot turtle soup from three-foot upturned turtle shells, while there are accounts of John Adams, George Washington and Abe Lincoln all enjoying savory bowls of the stuff. A famous Swiss physician, Samuel Tissot, wrote of the blood-cleansing properties of turtle soup in 1760.

The 1891 article points out that the terrapin is a swift and strong swimmer unless, being a cold blooded reptile, he is sluggish from cold weather. When the beasts are active, a trap made of coarse netting with an inward pointing funnel-like entrance at one end is used. Fish bait is put inside and the turtles enter through the funnel and can’t find their way out again. Part of the net trap must be above water so the turtle can surface to breathe air.

In the Chesapeake Bay area terrapin were hunted with dogs, of all things. A well-trained terrapin dog was said to be worth $100 and took at least six months to train. The dogs were used during the turtle spawning season when the critters left the water to lay their eggs. The dog would follow the water’s edge until he sniffed out a fresh turtle track, which he would then follow to the nest under some grass or bushes. When the dog located the egg-laying turtle he would put a foot on her back to hold her in place and bark loudly. The hunter would run up, grab the unfortunate amphibian and drop her in a gunny sack. The story claimed that “as many as fifty terrapins have in this way been caught by one dog in a single day.”

In some places hunters dug long shallow ditches in the marshes in the fall and, while the tide was out, stirred the bottoms of these depressions into a soft mud, into which the turtles would burrow, thinking they had found a good safe spot to spend the winter. When cold weather arrived, the hunter took a pitchfork and probed the mud. He could tell the difference between hitting a rock or a turtle shell and if it were the latter he dug it up, and into the bag it went.

Sometimes in winter when the turtles were sleeping peacefully beneath the mud under dead grass, cat-tails and reeds, the grass was set afire. The fire warmed the mud, causing the poor deluded terrapins to think spring had come early. They would burrow out of the mud and were summarily grabbed and popped into a sack.

In the Maryland and Virginia coastal area, during the summer terrapins lived in deep holes along the creeks. Several hunters in a boat would drift silently to the edge of one of these pools and suddenly begin hammering on the side of the boat with wooden clubs. Apparently, turtles are as curious as cats or cows and numbers of them would come to the surface to see what all the fuss was about. Of course the hunters were armed with long handled nets and scooped the hapless creatures into the boat.

Marketable terrapins were divided into three grades according to size. “Counts” were those whose undershell measured more than six inches. “Heifers,” also called “Scanty-Backs,” had shells between five and six inches, while “Bulls” or “Half-Backs” were less than five inches.

The article describes the only successful “Terrapin Farm” at that time, which was located at Roanoke, Virginia. There was an immense pond into which the tide ebbed and flowed through a screened sluiceway. Four to five thousand turtles were kept and were fed eight or ten bushels of fish and crabs twice a week. Early in June the females would leave the water and deposit anywhere from eight to twenty eggs, carefully covering them with sand. Some of the eggs hatched in around three months, although many waited until the following spring.

The hatchlings are described thus: “On his first appearance in the world a baby terrapin gives but little promise of his future epicurean greatness. He is half an inch in diameter, dirty, soft and helpless. He will not even venture to wet his toes in the water until several weeks old. The first winter of the little fellows’ lives they are packed in loose chopped straw and kept in a warm, dry place where they doze until awakened by the blue birds. In the spring they have each grown to the size of a quarter of a dollar, and are then turned into the pond to learn from the older fellows their future usefulness. Terrapins grow an inch a year, a Count being at least six years old.”      

I don’t know why eating turtle has so fallen out of favor — when I had my turtle soup at the Springfield Grille I’d sometimes get one for my family to taste it. They always said “Yes, that’s good,” but none of them ever ordered it for themselves. Possibly it’s not eaten because it’s not available at most places, and that may be due to the fact our ancestors ate so many of the critters that they’re now scarce, and expensive.

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