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Fear the Turtle or Eat the Turtle

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Testudo the Scholar, 1946. From the Digital Collections of the University of Maryland.

Today’s post is by 2012 Junior Fellow Brian Horowitz of the University of Maryland, College Park.

The Diamondback Terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin) is both the Maryland state reptile and the official mascot of the University of Maryland (UMD).  The bronze statue of Testudo, a gift from the class of 1933, sits with pride on the campus at College Park, and on exam days students engage in the tradition of rubbing Testudo’s nose and leaving food sacrifices for him.

As a student at UMD, I wear my “Fear the Turtle” t-shirt with pride. As a Junior Fellow working in the Science, Technology and Business Division at the Library of Congress, I learned that had I lived in an earlier time and if they had been wearing printed t-shirts, my shirt would more likely have said “Eat the Turtle” and I would have been rubbing a stomach full of rich savory terrapin soup.

During a project working on community and regional cookbooks, I found abundant recipes for terrapin. The Up-To-Date Cook Book, (National Publishing Co.,1897) that was published for the benefit of St. John’s Church in Montgomery County, Maryland,  contained instructions for preparing terrapin soup.

Here is Miss Skiles’ recipe, which calls for six terrapins:

Terrapin Soup Recipe from The Up-to-Date Cook Book of Tested Recipes (National Publishing Co, Washington, D.C., 1897)

In addition, The Trinity Parish Cookbook (Wilmington, Delaware, 1892) features two similar terrapin recipes

Terrapin soup from Trinity Parish Cook Book: Choice and Tested Recipes (Wilmington, DE, 1892).

In the 19th century turtles like the Diamondback Terrapin became very scarce due to human consumption. As they grew in popularity and price, especially among the elite, social clubs in cities such as Philadelphia and Baltimore would have discussions about the best preparation methods for these turtles.

The food historian Evan Jones recorded in his book American Food (1990) that a competition was held in 1893 between Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Club and the Baltimore Maryland Club to see whose terrapin recipe was better. The Philadelphians used a “cream sauce that was blended with a turtle sauce before the meat was added,” and the Marylanders used a “clear soup laced with butter and sherry and dominated by the pickled turtle meat untainted by herbs or cream.” (Well, of course, Maryland won. )

In 1891 over 89,000 pounds of terrapin were harvested in Maryland waters and terrapin populations dwindled in the region. However, with work by conservationists and a ban on the commercial harvest of the Diamondback Terrapin there’s hope that the species will be restored.

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