Terrapin Stew (Warning: not for the politically correct)

Diamondback Terrapin

Diamondback Terrapin (Photo credit: Travis S.)

 Terrapin Stew

                Terrapin stew is the model of culinary evolution.  This is a historically native dish that evolved over time into a completely different national dish, a true sign of culinary evolution.

Terrapins are a protected species now with the first sanctuary dedicated in 2002 at Janes Island State Park in Crisfield, Maryland in Somerset County on the Eastern Shore.  Now the recipe which has seen many turns since its inception has evolved into chicken a’ la king.  The ingredient replacing the terrapin has changed during the course of its history to reflect the tastes of the time.  Veal was commonly used during the depression due to its availability and cheap cost, now veal is almost as expensive as the turtle meat once used to replace the terrapin.

This recipe has seen the use of what was once referred to as trash food and seen it rise to the realm of delicacy and decline as the product was overharvested.  This follows the usual pattern of boom and bust that “follows the water” of Chesapeake cuisine.

The industry of diamondback farming was really started by a man named Albert La Vallette Jr.  He was a schooner captain in 1887 who noticed the abundance of terrapins available.  He fed the terrapins off of another common trash fish, blue crabs.  He created a recipe and sold it to several high-end restaurants and created a market for his terrapins, marketing them under the name Lavallette Terrapins.  He inflated the prices and sold them for a dollar an inch which in turn made the soup cost upwards of five dollars a bowl in the 1890’s.  By 1912 they were selling for seven dollars per turtle.   By 1926 they were selling for twenty five dollars a dozen and forty dollars retail.  By 1950 they were almost completely extinct and the industry died out completely.

Native Americans used to harvest the turtles which were an easy catch and use the shells for decoration as well as musical instruments and even an early form of bowls before the advent of pottery.  Much like the oyster shells, the Native Americans found many resourceful uses for the byproducts of the terrapin.  Even the biological name was derived from the variety of names which the natives called the turtle by.  It was called “torope,” by the Virginian Algonquians, “turepe,” by the Abenakis, and “terpen,” by the Delewares.  Translated from their native tongue it refers to edible or good tasting turtle.  The Terrapin was an important food source to the native tribes and features in several of the creation myths illustrating the importance and high regard in which the terrapin was held.

It was once quibbled that terrapins were as plentiful as grass and only slightly more tasty, but even great renowned French chefs such as Auguste Escoffier

English: Photograph of Auguste Escoffier

English: Photograph of Auguste Escoffier (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(1846 – 1935), refer to the Maryland Terrapin as the king of all turtles and this dish in particular as one of the finest he ever made. Not only the elite have made this their favorite dish, it was a mark of pride for ladies of the household to produce this dish properly.  The degree of difficulty of preparing this dish added an air of luxury to the table, it not only required money, but also the skill and time with which to prepare it.  It was also a dish which took a great deal of trial and error to master.  Due to the cost of the terrapins, only the well to do could afford the luxury of mastering the recipe.

Letting it bleed or putting it alive into the boiling water, this is a hotly debated question when preparing this dish.  Do you chop it up before cooking it or boil it first to remove the scales? Throw away a large portion of the tougher meat or keep it and cook it longer?  Add cream or veal stock?  There are a number of variations on this recipe that lend themselves to multiple interpretations.  The veal base would lend itself to more of a beef stew style dish, whereas, the cream leads directly to the chicken a la king recipe.

Mid – Atlantic Diamondback Terrapin Taxonomy[1]

Kingdom: Animalia (animal)

Subkingdom: Eumetazoa (animal having definite symmetry and tissues)

Phylum: Chordata (chordates have the following four characteristics: a hollow dorsal nerve cord, a notecord, pharyngeal slits, and a postanal tail, at some point in their development.)

Subphylum: Vertebrata (vertebrates are basically chordates with a spine.)

Class: Reptilia (from the Latin, creepy, crawly.)

Order: Chelonia (from the Greek word meaning interlocking shields or armor.)

Family: Emydiiae (a freshwater turtle, in Aristotle’s “History of Animals.”)

Genus: Malaclemys (from the Greek, mollusk – eating turtle.)

Species: Terrapin (from Algonquian, edible turtle.)

Subspecies: Terrapin; centrata (from the Greek, kentron, center, refers to formation of growth rings on scutes.)

The diamondback terrapin is unique in that it is a turtle that thrives in brackish water as well as salt or fresh water.  It actually prefers an environment of intermediate salinity.  They rely heavily on their surroundings in order to maintain body temperature and go into a state of hibernation during the winter months in which it can stay submerged under water for months without the need for further oxygen. Even the sexual determination of a terrapin egg is dependent on the temperature of the environment in which the egg is laid.

The turtles shell is a one of a kind evolutionary item in which the anatomy of the turtle is contorted and the ribs and the spine are fused to the skeleton in such a way that the hips and shoulders lie within the rib cage.

The oldest known fossils of the terrapin were found in South Carolina and date back to the Pleistocene epoch about 1.65 – 10,000 years ago.  There is a great debate among evolutionary biologists as to the origin of the terrapin.  Some place its evolution back before the development of crocodiles and birds and others place their evolution much later predating mankind only briefly.  Regardless, the terrapin physiology has changed little since the Pleistocene epoch as evidenced in the 1977 study done by R.C. Wood[2]

                “…in view of the fact that diamondbacks have no apparent competition in the salt marshes in which they are uniquely adapted, that this habitat may be of considerable antiquity, that they are quite different from all the emydines except Graptemys, and that emydines are a fairly ancient group (being known from the late Paleocene and early Eocene deposits of western North America), Malaclemys may be a taxon that has persisted over a fairly great time span while undergoing little change.”

The terrapins shell dose more than just protect the body, it is an integrated, much modified part of the body.  Due to the development of the shell, the terrapin has a body that is inside out.  It is possible to estimate the age of a terrapin by counting the growth rings on the back of the shell.  The rings become worn smooth over time and extended hibernation periods sometimes shrink the marks due to the fact that the turtle shell only grows during the active part of a terrapin’s life.

The dishes popularity was noted throughout the region and even on an international scale. In 1862 Joseph E. Segar shipped 2 dozen live terrapins to the White House as a gift for the enjoyment of President Abraham Lincoln.  The stew appeared on fine dining menus all over the country during this time.  Terrapin stew was a favorite and common lunch at the White House during the Taft administration as well.  William Howard Taft was a great enthusiast of Maryland cuisine and even had several recipes in the area named after him.  A recipe involving crab cakes incorporates onions and peppers into the western style and is still served in honor of him.

By the 1920’s the once trash by-product and hindrance to Maryland fisherman became a valuable commodity.  Terrapins were graded and sorted according to size and commanded hefty prices in gourmet eateries all over the region.

Over 8 Inches plastron length – $96 – 125/ dozen[3]

7 – 8 Inches plastron length – $60 – 70/ dozen

6 – 7 Inches plastron length – $35 – 40/ Dozen

Half Counts – Between 5 – 6 Inches plastron length $20 – 25/dozen

Bulls (males) $10 – 12/ dozen

At the height of the Terrapin soup era it was the first course served at Academy Awards dinner in 1929.  And by the mid 1930’s the Long Island Terrapin was considered to be an extinct species.  It was during this period that we begin to see the creation of “mock” turtle soup in which the terrapin is replaced by chicken and the dish chicken a la king was being created.  The luxury of the terrapin soup was carried over to the “mock” dish by proclaiming it to be fit for a king.

Terrapin Soup[4]



3 terrapins, 5 – 7 inches; ½ cup butter, 1 heaping tablespoon flour, 1 pint milk, salt and pepper, 6 hard boiled eggs, ½ pint thick cream; sherry wine.


                Boil terrapins and pick out meat; melt butter in good size sauce pan.  Remove from fire, and blend in flour; stir in milk gradually, and season with salt and pepper.  Chop egg whites and add with terrapin meat to milk mixture; stir in mashed yolks and eggs.  Return to stove and simmer until thickened.  Last, add cream, add sherry wine to your taste.


Mrs. J. Millard Tawes

Government House                                                                                       Annapolis

This soup was served to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill on a visit to the United States.  Mrs. J. Millard Tawes (Helen Avalynne Tawes) was the wife of then governor of Maryland, J. Millard Tawes.  Churchill liked the soup so much that he often requested it to be canned and shipped to him in England.

If you are making this soup, purchase turtles alive.  To butcher soft shell and snapping varieties the head should be severed, hanging the body up to allow blood to drip.  When all blood has drained out, the body should be washed and shell loosened by immersion in boiling water, and the toe nails pulled out.  The Gall bladder should be carefully removed to avoid breaking, which will cause the meat to become bitter.  Save the heart, liver and eggs.  Remove the entrails and throw them away.  Separate fish from the upper shell and place the meat with the heart, eggs and chopped liver in kettle, cover with water and cook until tender.

Open season on terrapins is from November 1 – March 31.  This dish however fell out of fashion around the time of prohibition.  Maryland became defiant during this time by proclaiming that they would not enforce prohibition, and the rum runners of the Bay became a legendary icon in local folklore.   The scarcity of sherry and its necessity as an essential ingredient in this dish made for difficulty in the preparation during this time, even though grain alcohol was easily obtainable; the more refined liquors such as sherry and wine were in scare supply, only catholic churches were exempt in the purchase and handling of wine.

A “Cooter,” is a colloquial term down south for various types of turtle.  Hunting turtle is often referred to a “gigging.” Professional turtle fishermen are called “Tarpinners.”

This dish is on the extinct list now that the terrapin has protected status as an endangered species.  Some harvesting is still done, but the commercial appeal of the dish has lost a lot since the turtle has become more of a family pet and sports mascot as opposed to a potential source of food.  Due to the long periods in which it takes a turtle to mate and grow, overharvesting has diminished the number of terrapins in the region dramatically.

You can still produce this dish using other types of turtles and even purchase turtle meat already cleaned and cooked in a can.  One notable type is the snapper turtle which is commonly used in turtle soup recipes, but the diamondback was revered for it delicacy and flavor and cannot be matched by substituting other turtles.  I cannot provide a personal recipe for this dish as I have never been fortunate enough to have it.  I will have to settle for its more famous offspring, chicken a la king.

Before commenting on the political correctness of this dish, please note that it is no less wrong to eat a chicken in place of a turtle.  Both are living creatures and equal in ethical value.  A more open and honest evaluation of our eating habits should be expanded to include a verity of animals, and not focus solely on a few types.  It is the mass production and dependency on a relatively few animals which have endangered our foodways in recent times.

The most famous Diamondback Terrapin is of course Testudo the Turtle which is the official mascot of Maryland University.  Testudo was born on May 23, 1933 when the school newspaper petitioned for a mascot for the university.  Ironically, the newspaper of Maryland University was called “The Diamondback.”  The matter was sealed when the class of 1933 banded together and raised money for the famous bronze casting of the turtle which stands outside of Byrd Stadium today.  The class raised money by holding the prom on campus to save on expanses and put the savings towards the monument.  In 1935 the Diamondback newspaper abbreviated the name and the term “Terp,” was born.

The sculpture stood outside of the Richie Coliseum on Baltimore Avenue in College Park, Maryland but was moved to its present location in front of Byrd Stadium in 1952.   In order to help preserve the monument and prevent theft and vandalism from other schools, the 300 pound sculpture was filled with an additional 700 pounds of cement.  It has become sort of a ritual for students to rub noses with the statue for good luck during finals week.

And as always, as we say in Maryland: Fear the Turtle!

Testudo timeline, 1933-1999

Testudo timeline, 1933-1999 (Photo credit: Digital Collections at the University of Maryland)

The Evolution:

Turtle soup was hardly a new idea by the time that the colonists first settled in America.  The French had a long tradition with the dish, but it was the texture and flavor of the Maryland terrapin which was the distinguishing factor here.  The eggs were highly prized and soft poached in the stew as an additional treat to this dish.  As we can see in the beginning, the turtle is ambiguous, it does not matter which turtle was used.  Only later do we begin to see the distinction between the sub-species of turtle.

Turtle Soup[5]



                Kill the turtle at daylight in summer, the night before in winter, and hang it up to bleed.  After breakfast, scald it well and scrape the outer skin off the shell; open it carefully, so as not to break the gull.  Break both shells into pieces and put them into the pot.  Lay the fins, the eggs and some of the more delicate parts by – put the rest into the pot with a quantity of water to fit the size of your family.  Add two onions, parsley, thyme, salt, pepper, cloves and allspice to suit your taste. 

                About half an hour before dinner thicken the soup with brown flour and butter rubbed together.  An hour before dinner, take the parts laid by, roll them in brown flour, fry them in butter, put them and the eggs into the soup; just before dinner add glass of claret or Madeira wine.

                                                                                (Recipe from and old Williamsburg cookbook.)

This recipe contains some folklore as well as instructions for making turtle soup.  I can’t imagine what purpose the warning serves about what time of day to kill the turtle, other than perhaps bacteriological growth.  The temperature in winter would slow the growth of micro organisms.

 To Dress Turtle[6]



                Kill it at night in winter, and in the morning in summer.  Hang it up by the hind fins, cut off the fins and let it bleed well.  Separate the bottom shell from the top, with great care, lest the gall bladder be broken, which must be cautiously taken out and thrown away.  Put the liver in a bowl of water.  Empty the guts and lay them in water; if there be eggs, put them also in water.  It is proper to have a separate bowl of water for the article.  Cut all the flesh from the bottom of the shell, and lay it in water; then break the shell in two, put it in the pot after having washed it clean; pour on as much water as will cover it entirely, add one pound of middling, or finch of bacon, with four onions chopped, and set it on fire to boil.  Open the guts, cleanse them perfectly; take out the inside skin, and put them in a pot with the shell; let them boil steadily for three hours, and if the water boils away too much, add more.  Wash the shell nicely after taking out the flesh, cover it and set it aside.  Parboil the fins, clean them nicely – taking off all the black skin, and put them in water; cut the flesh taken from the from the bottom and top shell, in small pieces; cut the fins in two, lay them with the flesh in a dish; sprinkle some salt over, and cover them up.  When the shell, &c. is done, take out the bacon, scrape the shell clean, and strain the liquor; which must be put back in the pot, about 1 quart of it; reserve the rest for soup; pick out the guts, and cut them in small pieces; take all the nice bits that are strained out, put them with the guts into the gravy; lay in the fins cut in pieces with them, and as much of the flesh as will be sufficient to fill the upper shell; add to it. (if a large turtle,) one bottle of white wine; cayenne pepper and salt, to your taste; one gill of mushroom catsup, one gill of lemon pickle, mace, nutmegs and cloves, pounded, to season it high.  Mix two large spoonful of flour in one pound and a quarter of butter; put it in with thyme, parsley, marjoram and savory, tied in bunches; stew all these together, till the flesh and fins are tender, wash out the top shell, put the puff paste around the brim; sprinkle over the shell pepper and salt, then take the herbs out of the stew; if the gravy is not thick enough, add a little more flour, and fill the shell; Should there be no eggs in the turtle, boil six new laid ones for ten minutes, put them in cold water a short time, peel them, cut them in two, and place them on the turtle; make a rich forcemeat, fry the balls nicely, and put them also in the shell; set it in a dripping pan, with something under the sides to keep it steady; have the oven heated as for bread, and let it remain in till nicely browned.  Fry the liver and send it in hot. 


For the soup:

                At an early hour in the morning, put on eight pounds of course beef, some bacon, onions, sweet herbs, pepper and salt.  Make a rich soup, strain it and thicken it with a bit of butter, and brown flour; add to it the water left from boiling the bottom shell; season it very high with wine, catsup, spice and cayenne; put in the flesh you reserved, and if that is not enough, add the nicest parts of a well boiled calf’s head; but do not use the eyes or the tongue; Let it boil until tender, and serve it up with fried forcemeat balls in it.

                If you have curry powder, it will give a higher flavor to both soup and turtle, then spice.  Should you not want soup, the remaining flesh may be fried, and served with a rich gravy. 

Once again we see the folklore attached to the turtles as far as killing them.  Here we have detailed instructions for the butchering of the turtle as well, which will come in handy for anyone who desires to try this recipe.  The practice of butchering is kind of becoming a lost art; even among chef’s there is not much call for real butchering and supermarket butchers qualify for the name they assume when it comes to finesse.

The use of power saws to butcher chickens is like using an anti-aircraft gun to hunt for ducks, it is unnecessary overkill.  Such things are not needed, only the patience to actually learn the skill and practice it on a semi-regular basis.  You can also save a great deal of money since on average, each cut a butcher makes adds at least a dollar to the cost of the product.  In large scale commercial operations, this might make sense, but for the home cook, it is just a waste of money.

There are also countless advantages to butchering your own meat.  The trim and leftover pieces can be made into additional meals practically for free.  You can use bines for stock as well as the trim for pate and ground meats such as sausage and hamburger.  Once the skill is learned it becomes easy to quickly dissect the portions and utilize them.  It also gives you a sense of creative freedom to utilize the remainder of the product in new and interesting ways.

Mock Turtle Soup[7]



                Take a knuckle of veal, two cow heels, two large onions stuck with cloves, one bunch of sweet herbs, spices, two glasses of white wine, and a quart of water; put into an earthenware jar, and stew for five hours; not to be opened until cold; remove the fat and bones when all is carefully strained; if required for use, place it on the fire with addition of forcemeat balls and hard eggs; oysters, too, may be added, and a very small quantity of anchovy sauce.  Cut the meat and fat an inch and a half square, and serve up in the soup.

This highlights the importance of the dish to certain regions of the country, that it would necessitate a “mock,” version during times of war.  Note the use of knuckles and cow heels, just a great usage of underutilized parts of the animal.  (See above notes.)

Terrapin Soup[8]



                This is so expensive a soup, and such a novelty except for those living in terrapin country, that the recipe is included only because Maryland devotees of the old time luxurious cookery want to see it in this book.

                According to the experts (and the editor is not one) on this stew – soup, the diamondback terrapin of the Chesapeake Bay is considered to be the best.

                The terrapin must be alive.  Drop it into boiling water and let it stay there for five minutes.  Remove it, rub the skin off the feet, tail and head, drawing the latter out with a skewer.  Put the terrapin again in boiling water and cook for fifteen to thirty minutes, till tender, depending on the size and age.  Test by pressing the feet.  Let it cool in the water.  Then remove it, draw the nails from the feet, cut off the under shell, lift off the upper shell.  Remove carefully the gall bladder and throw it away, sand bags, heart and intestines.  Leave liver and eggs.  Separate it at the joints and cut meat into pieces about one inch long.  Put the meat, liver and eggs in a saucepan with two quarts of boiling water and cook with seasonings until the meat drops off the bones.  The pot should be covered loosely, and cook slowly. 




2 Onions Sliced                                                                                                 ¼ Cup Sherry or Madeira

3 Pieces Celery, Finely Chopped                                                                              1 Teaspoon Allspice and a Little Mace

1 Lemon, Juice Only                                                                                      

1 Teaspoon Minced Chopped Thyme, Parsley, and Marjoram


Skim the soup while it boils.  Strain it when ready to serve, reheat and for each quart of soup have ready one yolk of a hard cooked egg rubbed smooth with a little butter and flour.  Place a tablespoon of Sherry or Madeira in each hot soup plate, stir the egg yolk mixture into the steaming soup, stir and serve.  Eight to ten servings.  Float in it the soup “eggs” given at the beginning of the chapter.

Here we see the development of the terrapin as the king of all turtles and the mystique that was created around the dish during this time as a luxury.  The author, Mrs. Benjamin Chew Howard, (Jane Grant Gilmor,) notes the expense of the dish to prepare, combine this with the difficulty of producing it and you can see why the dish is associated with fine dining circles.  Much like in high end restaurants today, it is really more about the quality of the ingredients (cost) and the difficulty to produce, (skill) that set them apart from other kitchens and the home chef.

Terrapin A La Baltimore[9]

1634 – 1959



                For 3 large terrapin about 7 – 8 portions:  Brown well in oven 10 lbs. veal bones (no substitute) Place in stock, cover with water, and simmer for 6 to 8 hours. 

Now prepare terrapin:

                A stiff blow to the nose will paralyze, just pull out the limp head, sever and put the terrapin in boiling water just a second.  Outer skin and scales on shell will remove easily.  Now put the terrapin in boiling water and cook until meat is tender and leaves bones clean.  No time limit can be set as each will require a slight variation, some instances as much as 20 minutes.  Now remove the top shell carefully and eviscerate, being particularly careful not to break the gull bladder.  Pick meat from bones, put bones in stock and after stock is ready strain and continue to boil down from 1 gal.  to 1 qt.  Dice meat and liver.  Place in 12 oz. Glass about ¾ full.  Cover with liquid. Portions are now ready to season.  To each portion, melt slowly 1/8 Lb. sweet butter add pinch of white pepper, very little salt.  Shake constantly – do not stir.  After simmering for 5 minutes or so add a jigger of very dry Spanish sherry.  Serve on Melba toast.

                                                                                                                                Cly Elhn


                Portions can be sealed with paraffin and will keep in icebox for weeks.


A good piece of advice for butchering the turtle here, hitting it on the nose to paralyze it.  Also this is the first mention of canning the stew and preserving it.  Often times in earlier years wax was used as a substitute to create an anaerobic environment, (essentially canning) for the use of preserving food.  It is not as reliable as modern canning methods and is sensitive to changes in moisture and temperature, but it will do in a pinch.

Mock Terrapin[10]



                Mince cold veal very fine, sprinkle with salt and cayenne, Mash the yolks of three small hard boiled eggs, three tablespoonfuls cooking wine, three tablespoonfuls of cream or milk, a little nutmeg and a little mixed mustard, a large lump of butter with a little flour rubbed in.

                Let all steam five minutes, and serve hot on toast.

                A nice relish for breakfast or lunch.                                                                        – Miss E. S. La.


From this recipe we see the common usage of mock turtle stew and the desire to associate with the aura of wealth and luxury associated with it. This is more of an egg salad than anything resembling a turtle stew.  I think it shows the importance of the delicacy of the turtle eggs, which were a highly prized addition to the normal stew.  There were no guarantees that any given turtle would have eggs in them, so it was a surprise bonus discovered when they were cooked.

Diamondback Terrapin 2[11]



1 Hard Boiled Egg to Each Terrapin

Butter, the Size of Two Eggs

½ Pint Cream (Could Use Evaporated Milk)


                Put hard boiled eggs through potato ricer and while hot add butter and cream well.  Season to taste with a little mustard, vinegar, salt, and red pepper.  Cook in a double boiler until very hot and then add the cooked terrapin meat.  Must be very hot to be at it’s best.  Do not stir too often, as it makes the mixture stringy.  For preparation of terrapin meat for above, see standard recipe given in the proceeding recipe.  To serve 30 people, use 3 quarts terrapin, 2 quarts cream, 1 pound butter and 2 ½ dozen eggs.

–          Mackey Perry Beck (Mrs. S. Scott)


                Here we see the addition of eggs into the dish to simulate the added luxury of the turtle eggs.  This also allowed the chef to stretch the soup out a little more since the turtles, themselves were so expensive.

Turtle Soup[12]



1 Pound Turtle or Terrapin Meat                                              3 Quarts Water

2 Scallions, Sliced (Including Tops)                                          1 Tablespoon Chopped Fresh Dill Weed


                Combine all ingredients in a large pot and simmer for 2 hours.  Remove the meat, cool slightly, dice; return the meat to the broth.  Add more water as necessary.  Simmer for 1 more hour, or until tender.  Serve hot.


This is an unusually simplistic approach to the dish, I would hold off on adding the herbs since they will grow dull if cooked for such a long time.  Scallions and dill are very fragile herbs and should not be subjected to such lengthy cooking times.  Chop them fine and add them at the end for garnish and flavor.  You will use less and get a better result.

Mock Terrapin Soup[13]



                My mother served this often as a substitute for diamondback terrapin, perhaps Maryland’s most elegant dish – served for generations at grand banquets.  Always carefully, but quietly, she called it “mock” terrapin.  Few could tell the difference.  Most people, if they don’t know what it is, find it better than terrapin. 

                When serving you will perhaps want to give your own camouflage name, like “marsh rabbit” because people are turned off by it true name.  But in fact, it would be difficult to fond an animal better nourished for the table.  It is cleaned by the water of the marsh where it lives, eats tender shoots, and is the most tender of meats.

                Purchase 4 muskrat at Lexington or Cross Street Market – very inexpensive.  Soak muskrat in salted water for several hours or overnight.  Discard water.  Wash muskrat.  Cover and parboil in new salted water for 30 to 40 minutes until tender, depending on size of muskrat.  While boiling, melt ¼ pound butter.  Add ½ cup flour.  Hard-boil 6 eggs.  Chop yolks fine and push through sieve. 

                Pick meat off bones, remove any leathery skin – like layer and set aside.  Put bones in cooking water.  Simmer for stock.  Strain.  Add chopped egg yolks to butter and flour.  Add 2 cups stock.  Then add stock as necessary for sauce, to thickness of heavy cream.  Add meat.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Add ½ to 1 cup sherry before serving.

                Note: This will be a thick meat dish to eat with a fork.  More stock makes soup texture like terrapin and many people think it is better than terrapin.  So do I.  For best flavor, it should be made two days before serving and reheated.  Muskrat is only available from January through mid-March.  Can be frozen.

                Yield: With sauce about 2 quarts.

In this recipe we see the use of muskrat used in place of terrapin.  I don’t know if this is an evolution of the dish or just a sneaky way of getting children to eat muskrat.  The muskrat is another regional delicacy, (See Chapter 12).

Miss Coleman’s Chicken Terrapin[14]



                Cut up a cold chicken (roasted or boiled) into very small pieces, being careful to take off all the skin, put it into a skillet with a wine glass of cream, a good sized piece of butter rolled in flour & season to taste with cayenne pepper, a little mace & salt.  Have ready 3 hard boiled eggs cut into small pieces & a wine glass of wine.  When the chicken has come to a good boil, stir them in & in two or three minutes it will be ready to serve.


3 T. Butter at Room Temperature

2 T. Flour

2 C. Chicken (or Turkey), Cooked, Skinned, Boned, and Cut into small Pieces

½ C. or More Whipping cream

¼ t. Mace

1/8 – ¼ t. Red Pepper

Salt to Taste

3 Hard Boiled Eggs

¼ C. Sherry or Madeira


                Bring eggs to boil in cold water, simmer 12 minutes.  Shell them under cold running water and chop in small pieces.  Do not refrigerate.  Cream together butter and flour.  Heat and stir in cream, seasoning, and chicken.  Before serving the sauce, stir in wine, then chopped eggs.  Heat briefly, stirring carefully so as not to break up eggs.  (To subtract some calories and cholesterol, use only whites of the hard boiled eggs; the yolks can be used in the chicken salad receipt above.)

Here we see the dish taking on its modern transformation.  Chicken terrapin would over time evolve into chicken a’ la’ king.  Here we see the beginning of this process of evolution.

Creamed Chicken or Turkey


4 to 6 servings


Serve this on toast, over rice or pasta, or in puff pastry shells. Or combine it with other ingredients to make a pot pie or casserole.  This recipe includes directions for poaching raw poultry.  You can also use 4 cups diced or shredded skinless cooked poultry.  Just substitute 2 cups canned broth for the reserved poaching broth.

                3 ½ pounds chicken parts or 1 ½ pounds boneless skinless chicken breasts or turkey breast cutlets or tenders.

                Place the chicken in a Dutch oven.  Add:

1 ¾ to 2 cups chicken stock

                Pour just enough water to cover the pieces.  Chicken parts may require as much as 3 cups of water to be covered, while boneless and skinless chicken parts may not require any water at all.  Bring to a simmer over high heat, then reduce heat so the poaching liquid barely bubbles.  Partially cover and cook until the meat releases clear juices when pierced with a fork, 20 to 25 minutes for chicken parts 10 to 12 minutes for boneless and skinless chicken or turkey breast.  Remove the meat from the stock and let stand until cool enough to handle.  If using chicken parts remove and discard the skin and bones.  Cut or shred the chicken into bite size pieces.  Skim the fat from the stock with a spoon.  Melt in a large saucepan over medium – low heat. 

                4 Tbsp. (½ stick) Unsalted Butter

Add and whisk until smooth:

                ⅓ Cup All – Purpose Flour (for a creamed dish), or

                ½ Cup (for a pot pie or casserole.)

                Cook, whisking constantly, for 1 minute.  Remove the pan from the heat.  Add 2 cups of chicken stock and whisk until smooth, whisk in:

                1 ½ Cups Whole Milk, Half & Half or Light Cream

                Increase the heat to medium and bring the mixture to just a simmer, whisking constantly.  Remove the pan from the heat, scrape the side of the pan with a wooden spoon or heat proof rubber spatula, and whisk vigorously to break up any lumps.  Return the pan to the heat and, whisking constantly, bring to a simmer and cook for 1 minute.  Stir in the cooked poultry along with:

                2 to 3 Tablespoons Sherry (optional)

                Cook for 1 minute more.  Remove from heat and season to taste with:

                Several Drops of Lemon Juice

                Salt and Freshly Ground White or Black Pepper

                2 to 3 Ounces of Freshly Grated or Ground Nutmeg

Chicken or Turkey á la King


4 to 6 servings


                Delicate and delectable if made with care.  The classic enrichment of egg yolks and cream can be omitted.

                Prepare using ⅓ Cup Flour;

                Cream Chicken or Turkey, above

                Heat in a medium skillet over medium-high heat until the foam subsides:

                1 ½ Tbsp. Unsalted Butter


                8 Ounces Mushrooms, sliced (2⅓ Cups)

                Cook, stirring, until all the liquid in the skillet is evaporated.  Stir the mushrooms into the creamed chicken. 

                Bring the chicken to a simmer, stirring occasionally.  Serve immediately, or for a richer, more velvety sauce, whisk together in a medium bowl:

                2 Large Egg Yolks

                ⅓ Cup Heavy Cream

                Remove the chicken from the heat.  Gradually stir 2 cups of the hot chicken and sauce into the egg yolk mixture, then pour this into the remaining chicken and stir thoroughly.  Return to the heat and, stirring constantly, heat to the first bubble and simmer.  The sauce should thicken slightly.  Serve in:

                Bruchѐes (puff pastry shells), Pg. 911

                Or over:

                Hot cooked rice or toast

                If you wish, sprinkle with:

                ¼ Cup Sliced or Slivered Almonds, Toasted

                2 Tablespoons Minced Fresh Parsley



                Here is a classic example of the modern dish although you can modify it with peas and peppers, or carrots and celery, basically any number of assorted vegetables, but this is the basic framework of the new dish.  This one is also far more palatable to the modern taste which still sees turtles as cute and cuddly pets that they had as children, so it is more politically correct.

This is a prime example of a dish evolving into a completely different dish, which has taken its place in the lexicon of American classic cuisine.  From a regional specialty to a highly refined dish at the height of fine dining gastronomy to a classic comfort food, this dish has touched on every aspect of American cuisine during its evolution, and now the process will be repeated with the new version and begin again.

[1] Diamonds in the Marsh: Barbara Brennessel 2006 University Press of New England

[2] R.C. Wood (1977) Evolution of the emydine turtles Garptemys and Malaclemys:  Journal of Herpetology II(4): 415 – 421

[3] Diamonds in the Marsh by Barbara Brennessel: University Press of New England Hanover and London 2006

[4] The Hammond – Harwood House Cookbook: Mrs. Lewis R. Andrews & Mrs. J. Reaney Kelly: The Hammond – Harwood House Association 1963

[5] The Williamsburg Art of Cookery by Mrs. Helen Bullock: Colonial Williamsburg Inc. 1938

[6] The Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph: University of South Carolina Press 1984


[7] Civil War Recipes: Receipts from the pages of Godey’s Good Book by Lily May Spaulding & John Spaulding: The University Press of Kentucky 1999

[8]Fifty years in a Maryland Kitchen: 430 authentic regional recipes, Ms. B.C. Howard, 1873 J.B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

[9] Treasured Recipes of Old St. Mary’s 1634 – 1959: compiled by the alumni of St. Mary’s Academy Leonardtown, Maryland: 1959

[10] Housekeeping in Old Virginia: Marion Cabell Tyree, John P. Morton and Company Louisville, KY. 1879

[11] Queen Anne Goes to the Kitchen: The Episcopal Church Women of St. Paul’s Parish: Tidewater Publishers Centerville, Maryland: 1962

[12] Native Harvests: American Indian Wild Food and Recipes by E. Barrie Kavasch: Dover Publications, Inc.  1977

[13] Hunt to Harbor: A Maryland Cookbook by The Junior League of Baltimore, Inc.: Waverly Press, Inc. 1885


[14] The Robert E. Lee Family Cooking and Housekeeping Book by Anne Carter Zimmer: University of North Carolina Press 1997

[15] The all new – all purpose Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker and Ethan Becker: Simon & Schuster Inc. 1997

[16] The all new – all purpose Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker and Ethan Becker: Simon & Schuster Inc. 1997


About midatlanticcooking

Chef in the Mid-Atlantic region for over 20 years. Painter, writer and traveler.
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7 Responses to Terrapin Stew (Warning: not for the politically correct)

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  3. Marisa says:

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  4. Sherry says:

    Traditions are important and even though I wouldn’t eat the soup, I am a very picky eater (lol), in the south people eat all kinds of things. My only thing is – everything in moderation, leave some for the next guy. My hubby is the cook in our family, so I rarely see anything until I’m ready to eat. I just wanted to stop by and thank you for liking my post on fundinmental.

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  6. Pingback: What ever happened to turtle soup? | Batshit Crazy News

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