New & NowFood History

The Original American Chicken Soup That History Forgot

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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.

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.