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Turtle on the half shell

Snapping turtles seldom eaten today, still delicious

By KEITH SUTTON Contributing Writer

This article was published August 12, 2012 at 2:01 a.m.

— Snapper soup was a favorite in our family when I was a kid. My grandmother often prepared it using turtle meat acquired from a local man who caught and sold common snapping turtles. The soup usually was served as the appetizer for a huge Sunday lunch.

I remember steam pouring off the tureen full of meaty broth.

Grandma would add some sliced hard-boiled eggs just before serving it, then we’d dig in. The adults often added a tiny glass of sherry to their soup as well, a tradition that dates back hundreds of years.

It’s been years since I have run across anyone who’s tried snapper soup. It seems to be a dish of the past, perhaps because turtle meat is now a hard commodity to come by.

You can’t go down to the neighborhood turtle man anymore to get the makings for your soup. You’ll probably have to catch your own if you want to sample this delicious creature.

The common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) is one of the largest reptiles found in Arkansas.

Full-grown individuals average 8 to 12 inches long (the length of the shell) and weigh from 10 to 35 pounds. Exceedingly large snappers may measure 18 inches and, if well-fed, may tip the scales at 40 pounds or more.

The common snapper may be kept and eaten, but do not mistake it for its larger relative, the alligator snapper (Macrochelys temminckii), which cannot be taken from the wild in Arkansas.

Alligator snappers are the largest freshwater turtles in North America, sometimes exceeding 100 pounds.

The upper shell on adult common snappers is rounded and almost smooth, while the alligator snapper’s shell has three rows of spiky-looking raised ridges.

When cornered, all snappers show a vicious temper, hissing and striking with true reptilian speed. They often position themselves with the hind legs elevated and mouth wide open, then lunge forward in attack.

If a snapper’s traplike jaws latch onto a living target, the turtle is said to hang on until it thunders. Although this is pure mythology, the human who has a finger or toe in a snapper’s shearing beak might be inclined to believe the myth.

Snappers are best handled by grasping the hind legs and holding the head down and well away from your legs.

I still prepare my own snapper soup on occasion, and other dishes featuring the tender, delectable meat of these reptiles. The flesh is both light and dark in color.

Many Southerners claim the meat has the combined flavors of pork, beef, veal, fish and chicken.

When you have your snapper in the bag (you’re on your own with that one), you are faced with the dilemma of dressing it.

It’s not as hard as it might seem, but it takes quite a bit of practice to become an efficient turtle dresser. If possible, have an old-timer teach you the ropes, but if you find there’s no such animal where you live, then jump right in and try it yourself. It’s well worth the effort. Here’s how I do it.

First, shoot the turtle in the head. Then carefully sever the head from the neck; some reflexes may still be present. Hang the neck down in an area protected from insects and allow the snapper to bleed out.

Next, use a knife to cut through the junction between the upper and lower shell. Crowding the overshell very closely, cut it free, detaching the ribs from the overshell with a heavy knife or hatchet.

The legs are then skinned and the meat peeled out of the shell. The meat should be soaked in cold water with baking soda added to firm it and draw out the blood. The yellow fat should be removed, as it adds an undesirable flavor to the meat.

Now your turtle is ready for the pot.

Many people prefer turtle merely rolled in flour and browned in hot grease. But since you’ve gone to all that trouble catching and dressing your turtle, why not try some recipes that are a bit more extravagant and, in my opinion, a lot tastier?

Here are two of my favorites.

GRANDMA’S TURTLE SOUP Ingredients: 2 1/2 sticks unsalted butter3/4 cup all-purpose flour 1 pound turtle meat, cut into 1/2-inch cubes 1 cup minced celery (4 stalks) 2 medium onions, minced (2 medium) 1 1/2 teaspoons garlic, minced 3 bay leaves 1 teaspoon oregano 1/2 teaspoon thyme 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 1 1/2 cups tomato purée 1 quart beef stock Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste, as needed1/2 cup lemon juice 5 hard-boiled eggs, finely chopped 1 tablespoon minced parsley 6 teaspoons dry sherry Directions: Melt 2 sticks butter in a heavy saucepan. Add the flour and cook, stirring frequently, over medium heat until the roux is light brown.

Set aside.

In a 5-quart saucepan, melt the remaining butter and add turtle meat. Cook over high heat until the meat is brown. Add celery, onions, garlic and seasonings, and cook until the vegetables are transparent. Add tomato purée, lower heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the stock and simmer for 30 minutes. Add the roux and cook over low heat, stirring, until the soup is smooth and thickened.

Correct the seasoning with salt and pepper to taste. Add lemon juice, eggs and parsley.

Remove from heat and serve.

At the table, add 1 teaspoon sherry to each soup plate.

TURTLE SAUCE PIQUANT Ingredients: 1 stick butter1 large onion, chopped 1 medium bell pepper, chopped 2 garlic cloves, minced 2 stalks celery 1 bunch green onions, chopped 1 (10-ounce) can Ro-Tel green chilies and tomatoes 1 (16-ounce) can tomato paste 2 tomato paste cans of water 1 smoked sausage link, sliced in bite-size pieces 2 pounds turtle meat Creole seasoning Cayenne pepper Salt Worcestershire sauce Directions: Melt butter in large pot. Add onions, bell pepper, garlic, celery and green onions. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, about 20 minutes.

Then add Ro-Tel tomatoes, tomato paste and 2 cans of water.

Simmer 40 minutes over low heat, then add the sausage and season to taste with Creole seasoning, cayenne pepper and salt.

Add the turtle and cover. Do not stir sauce again until ready to serve. Let cook 1 1/2 hours on low heat. Serve over cooked rice.

River Valley Ozark, Pages 136 on 08/12/2012

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