Food History

The Original American Chicken Soup That History Forgot

February 14, 2017

Amidst the many griefs I worked through last year—Carrie Fisher, David Bowie, America—one of the hardest was Gilmore Girls star Edward Hermann, a.k.a Richard. He had actually passed away on New Year’s Eve 2014, but I suppose I had put that grief on hold for the holidays. The opportunity to go back for a visit to Gilmore Girl’s Stars Hollow in November was more than welcome, as we entered a reality that has made me sad and terrified and a million other confusing things I still can’t find the words for.

Photo by Hello Giggles

I recalled an episode where Richard, a formidable man of old Connecticut money and considerable stature, learned of the death of his mother and withdrew into nearly inconsolable heartbreak and complete seclusion. Grief can be powerful like that—stripping a man of the airs he possesses, turning back time and leaving him as a fragile little boy that simply wants his mommy. The only thing he could bring himself to say was a request for “turtleneck soup,” a comfort he had as a child. No one understood what it was, as mock turtle soup has not just fallen out of fashion, it has been almost completely forgotten. Which is quite remarkable, as it was the original American “chicken soup”: The culinary equivalent of a warm hug, it was beloved by both rich and poor, and found on every table.

In my collection of vintage cookbooks, few published before the first World War lack a recipe for turtle soup. It was found on the menu at Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration; George Washington and John Adams ate it as a celebratory dish after key moments in the fight for independence. Turtles used to be abundant in city and country alike, an easy catch for dinner if you were hungry, or a scrappy way to make a living if you were hustling.

Like oysters and lobsters, turtles were consumed with such ferocity to the point of extinction in certain areas, highly endangered in others, and as such they went from being a plentiful cheap eat to a rare and expensive luxury.

The culinary equivalent of a warm hug, it was beloved by both rich and poor, and found on every table.

And then came the advent of the factory farm and the years of rationing food during the World Wars, which immeasurably changed the way people thought about—and bought—meats. Small game like rabbit, pigeon, and turtle fell out of fashion, while the industrialized farm system was able to steer our appetites toward easily processed meat, like beef, pork, and chicken. To duplicate the unique flavor and slightly chewy texture of turtle meat, as well as one could manage, anyhow, offal was brought in as a substitute, and “mock turtle soup” was born. This recipe was found in the collection of Martha Lloyd—best friend to Jane Austen and a “culinary consultant” of sorts to the writer:

Mrs. Fowle's Mock Turtle Soup: Take a large calf's head. Scald off the hair. Boil it until the horn is tender, then cut it into slices about the size of your finger, with as little lean as possible. Have ready three pints of good mutton or veal broth, put in it half a pint of Madeira wine, half a teaspoonful of thyme, pepper, a large onion, and the peel of a lemon chop't very small. A ¼ of a pint of oysters chop't very small, and their liquor; a little salt, the juice of two large onions, some sweet herbs, and the brains chop't. Stand all these together for about an hour, and send it up to the table with the forcemeat balls made small and the yolks of hard eggs.

How does this classic recipe hold up in the 21st century? I don’t know, because there is no way in hell I am making nor eating that. I don’t care if it’s my job. Number one, I don’t have a pot large enough to fit a calves head into. That can be my official excuse.

Number two: When I was a child my Sicilian grandmother used to make a dish called capozelle, which is the roasted skinned head of a calf, eyeballs and all. You know what that smells like when it’s in the oven? It smells like butts. I don’t know how this is possible because the head is on the opposite side of the animal as the butt. Maybe its head is made out of the same tissue butts are, and that’s why it smells like a bunch of butts farting on other butts.

Number three: I remember eating brains when I was four years old, and the fact that I can still remember precisely how they tasted over thirty years later and it still makes me cringe should tell you how awful they were. There are plenty of cultures all over the world who eat brains like potato chips, and god bless ‘em. Maybe it’s one of those things you need to acquire a taste for as a baby, like Vegemite or fermented shark. But I am 36 and it is far too late for me, so I say to you, fair readers, that you are on your own with this one.

Richard Gilmore was far braver than I. Perhaps those stoic Connecticut families of means were too proper to register any distaste for things, and in time they learned to enjoy it. His daughter Lorelai managed to have a pot made for him by her chef best friend Sookie St. James, who finds a recipe in—what else—a vintage cookbook.

If you are brave enough to attempt this recipe, or have any memories of it from childhood, be sure to let us know in the comments. Godspeed, you brave souls.

13 Comments

monica February 16, 2017
"smells like a bunch of butts farting on other butts"<br />😂 I die laughing
 
wenderzz February 16, 2017
This is a pretty funny article. But if mock turtle soup was created after even the first world war, as you state in the article, how is it possible that Martha Lloyd, who lived in the 18th century, had a recipe for it? If that's the case, mock turtle soup "was born" way before the advent of factory farming.
 
GraceF February 15, 2017
Ha! I admit I found the commentary pretty funny. I've had the turtle soup at Brennan's before, very tasty, and I can see how offal might be the closest substitute in taste and texture, but it's not exactly high on the list of things I'm comfortable attempting in my own kitchen. <br /><br />Love the tribute to Edward Hermann, too. Gilmore Girls was such a food-heavy show (two main characters who cook professionally, not to mention the Girls' famously voracious appetites), it's easy to watch and find inspiration.
 
yoshiya February 15, 2017
"who finds a recipe in—what else—a vintage cookbook."<br />Turtle soup recipe only can find in vintage cookbook which I found at antique shop years ago in upstate New York. "Oscar Tschirky of the Waldolf's" (1973) and "The New James Beard" (1981), both has turtle soup recipe. Turtle were harvested so heavily for food 100 years ago but it have become threatened or gone extinct. That species is now federally threatened and is under protection by Endangered Species Act. If possible, I want to make or taste just ONCE before next coming generation says "dad, what's turtle?".
 
Beaulaker February 15, 2017
My mom made calves head soup out of deer heads that she stewed in a giant copper pot (it covered two burners). It took two days make. She let the heads boil with fortified wine and bundles of herbs and spices wrapped in cheese cloth, smelled like allspice, cinnamon and cloves with parsley and thyme. Then she fished out the bundles of cheese cloth and got the heads out to cool. She created a dark roux and whisked it into the broth to make a thick rich soup and added back whatever meat she could pick from cooled skull plus the brains and tongue. I made it myself a few years ago, a lot of work but great for nostalgia.
 
Amy P. February 15, 2017
I don't generally feel too sad over the deaths of people I've never met, but Edward Hermann was certainly on the list and sadly, someday Judi Dench will be too. <br /><br />I was also laughing at the butts and the nopes, and I don't even appreciate slapstick movies. So you've got a knack ;)
 
GregoryBPortland February 14, 2017
As i began to read the recipe, my stomach began to churn. Ugh. Then I got to this part: "How does this classic recipe hold up in the 21st century? I don’t know, because there is no way in hell I am making nor eating that. I don’t care if it’s my job. Number one, I don’t have a pot large enough to fit a calves head into. That can be my official excuse." This made me laugh uncontrollably for quite a while, and each time I reread it, I laughed over and over. Then I went to see if I had a recipe. Indeed I do--two of them. The first is from a book called THE WAY TO A MAN'S HEART: The Settlement Cookbook, which came from my mother's home, but I think it was my stepfather's book. It had two recipes for mock turtle soup, one of which called for a can of mock turtle, whatever that was/is. Intrigued, I looked further and found one in the latest (75th anniversary edition of JOY OF COOKING, published in 2006). I suppose the two pounds of ground beef the recipe calls for is a substitute for the turtle meat in the recipe, as is the calf's head in the other. I'm not normally squimish about about eating meat of any kind, but I might draw the line at turtle. Anyway, this piece made my day. <br />
 
Julie February 14, 2017
"You know what that smells like when it’s in the oven? It smells like butts. I don’t know how this is possible because the head is on the opposite side of the animal as the butt. Maybe its head is made out of the same tissue butts are, and that’s why it smells like a bunch of butts farting on other butts."<br /><br />Oh man, I died of laughter at that line. Absolutely DIED. <br /><br />I'm not sure if I've eaten turtle before. It's a possibility. Chinatown in Hawaii actually sells turtles for the purpose of eating, so I may have consumed one without knowing. However, when I was older, I bought one of those turtles with my aunt for her to keep as a pet.
 
shahnnen E. February 14, 2017
I rather enjoyed the references to 'butts', but I am blessed with the sense of humor of a 9 y/o boy. <br />The smell of a butt is universal and a testament to the staying power of aromas as memory jogs, and at least for me, food is all about memories. So I say, bring on the butts!
 
E February 14, 2017
Loved this and LOVED Edward Hermann. I can very, very clearly remember when my mother made some kind of brain Indian curry. I also very, very clearly remember my reaction. Nope!
 
Whiteantlers February 14, 2017
What does any of this, including the repeated references to "butts" and farting, have to do with chicken soup?!
 
Cheri M. February 14, 2017
I agree, I'm confused
 
Char D. February 15, 2017
Whiteantlers, I think the point is that at one time in our country's culinary history, turtle soup or mock turtle soup was the same kind of comfort food that chicken soup is considered to be today.<br /><br />Thanks, but I think I and my taste buds will stick with chicken soup...