The Vanished Banquet: Terrapin Soup

Written By David Shields

Originally Published in The Rice Paper Newsletter, Fall 2009

Terrapin Soup ranked among the premier American dishes of the 19th century, found on the bills of fare of the finest restaurants and a fixture at the social dinners of blue book society. Prepared with Madeira or Sherry as a principal ingredient, the vogue for Terrapin soup died with Prohibition in 1919. Because the turtle had been harvested to near ex tinction in northern wetlands, the Volstead Act proved a boon to the species, enabling it to crawl back into healthy numbers in the 1960s. Then the boom in coastal real estate development began playing havoc with its nesting areas in the brackish waters off the Atlantic. While certain states, South Carolina included, do not identify the Diamondback Terrapin an endangered species and maintain laws that permit commercial harvesting, no license for commercial exploitation of the Terrapin have been issued in the 21st century. The turtle is being protected by administrative policy, because there is a widespread conviction that the population is declining. Ongoing studies of terrapin populations are maintained by several groups, reflecting a strong public resolve to bring this most famous of turtles back into a flourishing condition. While it is not illegal to have terrapin soup, no public restaurant in the United States now serves it, sensitive to the sustainability issues, but it still may be had in at least two private clubs in Baltimore and one in Washington, D.C. I include two recipes, representing two schools of thought about the soup. The first reflects the tradition in the Chesapeake region to render it as a thick stew. The second, from one of the earliest cookbooks by an African-American Chef and Housekeeper, The Unrivalled Cook-book (1886), treats in as a high-style soup with forcemeat balls of turtle.


In buying terrapins, select those only that are large, fat, and thick-bodied. Put them whole into water that is boiling hard at the time, and (adding a little salt) boil them till thoroughly done throughout. Then, taking off the shell, extract the meat, and remove carefully the sand-bag and gall; also all the entrails. They are disgusting, unfit to eat, and are no longer served up in cooking terrapin for the best tables. Cut the meat into pieces, and put it into a stew-pan with its eggs, and sufficient fresh butter to stew it well. Let it stew till quite hot throughout, keeping the pan carefully covered that none of the flavor may escape; but shake it over the fire while stewing in another pan, make a sauce of beaten yolk of egg, highly flavored with Madeira or sherry, and powdered nutmeg and mace, and enriched with a large lump of fresh butter. Stir this sauce well over the fire, and when it has almost come to a boil, take it off. Send the terrapin to table hot in a covered dish, and the sauce separately in sauce-tureen, to be used by those who like it, and omitted by those who prefer the genuine flavor of the terrapin when simply stewed with butter.

This is now the usual mode of dressing terrapins in Maryland and Virginia, and will be found superior to any other.

No dish of terrapins can be good unless the terrapins themselves are of the best quality. It is mis- taken economy to buy poor ones. Besides being insipid and tasteless, it takes more in number to fill a dish. The females are the best.

Saturday Evening Post 29, 1505 (June 1, 1850), 0_004. 


Clean and cut up a large terrapin with the entrails and bones; remove the gall carefully; put your terrapin in a soup pot with four quarts of water, a soup bunch, a head of celery, onions, thyme, parsley, salt and pepper; let it simmer four hours do not let it cease one moment to cook; strain your soup, thickened it with browned flour, return it to the soup pot; tie up in a muslin bag half a tablespoonful of cloves, allspice, and a cracked nutmeg; let it simmer an hour in the soup, then remove. If the turtle has eggs, boil them and throw in the yolks; if there are no eggs, use forcemeat balls; add a glass of Madeira and thin slices of lemon before serving. The force- meat balls are made by rubbing two hard-boiled yolks to a paste, with butter, and half a dozen spoonfuls of the turtle meat, chopped very fine, and seasoned with salt and pepper; bind with beaten eggs; make into balls; dip, first, into beaten egg, then into powdered cracker, and fry in butter.

Mrs. Washington, The Unrivalled Cook-Book and Housekeeper’s Guide (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1886), pp. 27-28.