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Matt Blitz
June 22, 2017

No one yet knows what the menu will be for Donald Trump's inauguration meal in January, but perhaps he can take a few pointers from presidents of yore. For example, Truman had baked asparagus tips and green turtle soup. Or Lincoln, who enjoyed a scrumptious meal that included roast beef, almond sponge cake and terrapin. The best president to model maybe William Howard Taft, who served all of his guests his favorite dish in the world - rich turtle soup. Perhaps you're seeing a pattern. Presidents used to eat turtles. So did millions of Americans. Few do today and it's highly unlikely Trump will be serving the green reptile at his presidential bash. So, what happened to it as a delicacy?

There was a time when America's ponds, streams and swamps were full of turtles and terrapins. During colonial times, they were an abundant and easily caught resource. European settlers who had not experienced this slow-moving creature before found the meat novel and hearty. Because of this, turtles ended up on dinner tables of both the rich and poor.

As available as turtles were in early America, they were a bit tough to cook correctly. First off, only female turtles, or "cow turtles" were meaty and tasty enough to eat straight up. Male turtles were thought to be bland, but were still used in soup and stew. In addition, experts said that the flippered reptile's body contained seven different kinds of meat (apparently, reminiscent of pork, chicken, beef, shrimp, veal, fish and goat) all with their own consistency and proper ways of preparing.

18th and 19th-century cookbooks tried to give at-home chefs explicit instructions on how to properly clean, prepare and cook the shelled creature. The 18th-century cook Richard Briggs normally imported his turtles from the Caribbean because they were much larger in size (sometimes reaching 900 pounds) and could feed a crowd. He advised to always serve them fresh and boil the meat before frying and seasoning.

While turtles were also eaten in the south, it was in Philadelphia that turtle soup, or "snapper soup," took off and still is considered one of the city's premier culinary dish. Likely due to the city's approximation to terrapin habitats in the many bodies of water in the Delaware Valley, Philadelphia's pre-revolutionary taverns often spiked the soup with sherry. It's said that after long days debating democracy at the First Continental Congress, John Adams (who later become our nation's second president) would relax with a bowl of sherry-infused snapper soup.

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Turtle soup remained extremely popular through the most of the 19th century, but its main ingredient was quite literally running out. Like many things at this time, food took a turn towards mass production. By 1882, canned turtle soup could be found in grocery stores across the country. Due to this overhunting, turtle populations (like the Delaware Valley's terrapins) quickly declined. Turtle meat prices shot up and, soon, it became a delicacy that only the rich could afford. Still, everyone wanted their soup, so mock turtle soup was invented. To imitate the texture and taste of real turtle, the recipes often called for boiled calf heads rather than the namesake meat.

Still, turtle meat and soup survived at least until World War II becoming a symbol of opulence and grandeur ( fancy presidential inauguration dinners certainly exemplify those characteristics). By the mid-20th century, with federal restrictions put in place to protect turtles and their habitats, both turtle and mock turtle fell completely out of style and is no longer easily found in red and white Campbell soup cans grocery stores nationwide.

But one can still find it in Philadelphia. The Olde Bar in the historic Bookbinder's building serves an original recipe snapper soup. So does the Oyster House on Sansom Street.

So, if Donald Trump does end up wanting turtle soup at his inauguration dinner like his predecessors, all he needs to do is take a short trip from DC to the city of Brotherly Love.

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