During the mid 1700’s, turtle soup became very popular in England. This wasn’t just any turtle soup, but soup made with green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) from the Caribbean, which weigh up to 100 pounds. Green turtle soup was served in London taverns, but it was very expensive.
There was, of course, no way to ship frozen items from the Caribbean all the way to London, nor any other way of keeping food fresh. The huge turtles had to be shipped in alive, and kept in special tanks until they ware needed. And the soup itself, which was simmered with Madeira wine and seasoned with cayenne and anchovies, was quite an undertaking. It took over half a day to make.
You may wonder how green sea turtles came to be shipped to England in the first place. One explanation is that the turtles could have provided valuable meat during long sea voyages back from the New World. The turtles could be kept alive on board ship so fresh meat was on hand. Sometimes, live turtles made it all the way back to Europe, and royalty or other wealthy folks developed a taste for it.
Preparation of Turtle Soup
A turtle, which may have weighed 50, 60 or more pounds had to be killed and the head had to be cut off. Then it was hung by its hind fins overnight, to drain. Then the fins were removed and the flesh was separated from the upper and lower shell, which couldn’t have been an easy operation. The turtle itself had to be cleaned, the innards removed and the turtle flesh cut away, with care taken to preserve the “green fat” which was important for the taste, texture, and color of the soup. After this initial preparation, no doubt an arduous task, the soup was complicated to make and took hours and hours.
As popular as turtle soup was, not many could afford it. Not if they wanted to pay the rent. Enter Mock Turtle Soup.
Mock Turtle Soup Recipes
As early as 1758, recipes for mock turtle soup showed up in cookbooks. Before we get into what mock turtle soup was though, Jennifer McLagan in her book Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animal, brings up a good point. In order to duplicate the experience of turtle soup, you would need a protein that had the same gelatinous quality. The same texture. However, cook books were meant for common folks, not folks who are likely to have been able to afford real turtle soup, spending half a week’s wages to do so. So, although the early cook book authors may have claimed that their mock version was just like real turtle soup, or better, the readers likely had no way of telling the difference! Likely, they wouldn’t have known that the soup was supposed to have a greenish color, as well, due to the fat.
Perhaps the earliest printed recipe for mock turtle soup was in the 1758 edition of Art of Cookery by Hannah Glasse. She used calf’s head to extend the turtle meat, since it had a similar gelatinous texture. Later on, she left out the turtle completely but still served the soup in a turtle shell. It may make you wonder how people were supposed to obtain the turtle shell. Maybe restaurants were willing to sell them very cheaply, or give them away. It seems unlikely that home cooks would have actually bothered with the turtle shell, but who knows.
In later editions of her book, Hannah Glasse left out the turtle altogether, and even the turtle shell. Such as in this 1784 version:
To make Mock-Turtle Soup
TAKE a calf’s head, and scald the hair off as you would a pig, and wash it very clean; boil it in a large pot of water half and hour; then cut all the skin off by itself, take the tongue out; take the broth made of a knuckle of veal, put in the tongue and skin, with three large onions, half and ounce of cloves and mace, and alf a nutmeg beat fine, all sorts of sweet herbs chopped fine, and three anchovies, stew it till tender, then take out the meat, and cut it in pieces about two inches square, and the tongue in slices, mind to skin the tongue; strain the liquor through a sieve; take half a pound of butter, and put in in the stew-pan, melt it, and put in a quarter of a pound of flour, keep it stirring till it is smooth, then put in the liquor; keep it stirring till all is in, if lumpy strain through a sieve, then put to your meat a bottle of Madeira wine, season with pepper and salt, and Cayenne pepper, pretty high; put in force-meat balls and egg-balls boiled, the juice of two lemons, stew it one hour gently, and then serve it up in tureens.
N.B. If it is too thick, put some more broth in before you stew it the last time.
Keep in mind that before this, it was not unheard of to serve up a calf’s head soup using an actual calf’s head as a vessel. Afterwards mock turtle soup became even more popular than turtle soup had been to begin with, so that calf’s heads stopped being used, and eventually, mock turtle soup and calf’s head soup became somewhat interchangeable terms.
Later cookbooks replaced calf’s head with pig’s ears, to achieve a gelatinous and clear soup with a similar flavor.
Cassel’s Dictionary of Cookery from 1884 has many entries for Mock Turtle Soup with various replacements for the calf’s head, such as egg balls and brain balls. However, the book also reveals that both dried turtle flesh and tinned (canned) turtle flesh must have been available since recipes are given for both. There were many other variations, including fish cakes or even beef cubes.
Mock Turtle in Alice in Wonderland
The familiarity of mock turtle soup is revealed in Alice in Wonderland. Lewis Carrol created a character called Mock Turtle, who famously said, “Once I was a real turtle.”
Alice was first told of Mock Turtle by the Queen of Hearts. The Queen asked Alice if she had seen Mock Turtle yet. “No,” said Alice. “I don’t even know what a Mock Turtle is.”
“It’s the thing Mock Turtle Soup is made from,” said the Queen. The queen then tells Alice to come along and the Mock Turtle would tell her his life story. They came upon the Gryphon napping in the sun, and the queen orders Gryphon to take Alice to the Mock Turtle. They came upon Mock Turtle sitting (sad and lonely) on a little ledge of rock. So they went up to Mock Turtle, who just stared at them sadly, his eyes full of tears.
What is his sorrow, Alice asked Gryphon. “It’s all his fancy, that: he hasn’t got no sorrow, you know. Come on!”
Gryphon says to Mock Turtle, “This here young lady, she wants to know your history, she do.”
MOCK TURTLE: I’ll tell it her (in a deep, hollow tone). Sit down, both of you, and don’t speak a word till I’ve finished (all sit; long pause).
ALICE (aside). I don’t see how can ever finish, if he doesn’t begin.
MOCK TURTLE: Once (with a deep sigh) I was a real Turtle (long pause).
GRYPHON. Hjckrrh! (MOCK TURTLE sobs).
MOCK TURTLE. When we were little (still sobbing) we went to school in the sea. The master was an old Turtle — we used to call him Tortoise.
ALICE. Why did you call him Tortoise, if he wasn’t one?
MOCK TURTLE: We called him Tortoise because he taught us. (Angrily) Really, you are very dull!
Later, after Gryphon induces Alice to stand up and recite “‘Tis the Voice of the Sluggard,’ which Mock Turtle declares it to be uncommon nonsense, and mighty confusing, Mock Turtle sings a song, revealing Carrol’s familiarity with turtle soup:
Beautiful Soup, so rich and green,
Waitng in a hot tureen!
Who for such dainties would not stoop?
Soup of the evening, beautiful soup!
The turtle’s long telling of his life story left Alice cold and hungry, thinking she’d like some soup for herself, but she had no idea what to use to make mock turtle soup. So, the visited the Department of Fisheries for help and they explain to her the regulations on what turtles could be caught and eaten. No one was able to tell here what to use for mock turtle soup, though. Then, she comes upon the solution, and realizes she should use the REAL Mock Turtle. So the went back to the turtle and invited him to go home with her, where she gets him to step out of his shell and into a soup pot.
Green Turtles Endangered
Green sea turtles were added to the North American endangered species list in 1970. It is illegal to harm them. In the Southern United States, turtle soup made from various turtles but especially the Alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii), is enjoyed. They are the largest species of freshwater turtle, and can weight from 155 to 175 pounds. Although not an endangered species, their populations are declining due to the degradation of their habitat, and over-harvesting for their meat. This has some states to declare them vulnerable and to ban catching them. Therefore, meat from common snapping turtles, or even box turtles is sometimes substituted or passed off for Alligator snapping turtle. Even Alligator meat is sometimes used, which is legal to obtain, giving a new sense to the term “mock turtle.”
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