We pride ourselves on being adventurous eaters and cooks, Mark and I. We entertain ourselves with food versions of adolescent games like “truth or dare” or “never have I ever.” (Could you bring yourself to drink a mixture of raw cow’s blood and milk as the Maasai people supposedly do? Did you really eat horse and does it taste like venison?)
For a while now, we’ve been planning to make turtle soup. It all started because Mark found a Japanese culinary student’s flickr page, which featured a butchered turtle. He put a link to it on this blog and we got an irate response from a person calling herself “myratheturtlefan.”
She wrote: “you ppl r diqusting y would u even eat a turtle how would u like it if the turtle ate u!!!???!!! FYI i am in luv wut turtles!!!!!!!!!!!! obviously turtles will never be in luv wit u!!!!!!!!!!”
It was our first hate mail. And we didn’t even cook the darn thing. We figured if we were going to suffer the consequences, we might as well do the deed. Also, we thought back to Babette’s Feast, the sensual Danish film about a cook who decides to create a real French feast, an extravagant banquet of epic proportions, for her puritanical employers, and the first course is turtle soup.
We had been talking about making it together for weeks. So finally, yesterday was the day. Around noon, we met in Chinatown to search for the most important (and controversial) ingredient of the potage à la tortue: the turtle.
Without much difficulty, we found a seafood shop on Bayard and past the rows of fish and shrimp, inside one of the large plastic tubs, was a turtle. He didn’t seem to be moving much. Mark wanted one with more “snap” to it, but the man explained it was the last one. We decided to shop around.
But no other place seemed to sell turtles. After trying a few other stores, we decided to just go back and get it, however sluggish it was. But somehow, in the twenty minutes between when we left the store and came back, someone else had decided they also wanted the turtle and bought it.
This was already starting to be more of a hassle than we had anticipated. While we always enjoy hunting down rare ingredients, we were hungry and tired and getting irritable. We decided to have dim sum and come up with a game plan. We’d go to Hong Kong Supermarket on Hester and if they didn’t have turtles, we swing around on Grand Street in hopes of finding some there. If there were no turtles on Grand Street, we’d have to just count our losses and try again next week.
But Mark was tenacious and on a mission. We were going to find a turtle and cook it. His enthusiasm bolstered mine. And luckily for us, there was a tank full of turtles at Hong Kong Supermarket. “Do you want me to kill it?” the man asked? Mark said no. It seemed better to keep it alive until we were ready to cook it. But this proved to be a terrible decision. Killing turtles is harder than you think.
When we got to my apartment, we spread out some newspaper on my kitchen table and placed the turtle on a cutting board. Every recipe online seemed to suggest that chopping off its head is the best way to do it. How to get the turtle to stick its head out so you can actually chop it off was another matter.
One website said that if you give the turtle something to bite down on, it will stick its head out and take the bait. A wooden skewer didn’t do the trick as we had hoped. It was completely disinterested. Ditto for a piece of parsley we were using to try and lure it out. (Who can blame it for having no appetite? What do turtles eat, anyway?)
Maybe we could use a pair of tongs and gently pinch its head out, I suggested. Mark needed both his hands to hold the turtle and chop its head, so I would have to pull it out. I was already disturbed by the whole process and only agreed to it because Mark assured me he’d butcher it.
For me, if I buy an uncooked steak or a chicken leg or any other kind of meat, I am removed enough from the living animal it doesn’t bother me for a second. But seeing the thing crawl around and have to take its life was too much for me. (Except for lobster. I have no qualms about lobster.)
If I don’t have ethical problems with eating meat, I should have no ethical problems killing the animal for its meat, I reasoned, but as soon as I touched the turtle’s flesh with the tongs and felt it wiggle, I was horrified. I couldn’t do it. Then Mark suggested he just chop it from the shoulders up. The shell was reasonably soft and we wouldn’t be damaging any major organs but we’d still kill it in one swift blow.
It was very tense. I started to feel like we were doing something really awful and misguided. Like we were two steps away from putting a black sack over the poor guy’s head and videotaping the whole gruesome decapitation to send to Al-Jazeera.
I also had horrible visions of turtle blood and guts squirting everywhere. I decided to hold up a newspaper in case that happened, which had the added benefit of hiding the turtle from my sight like a hospital curtain. I saw the cleaver rise above the newspaper and a second later, a loud thump.
“I didn’t kill it,” Mark said. I lowered the newspaper. There wasn’t even a nick. The term “soft shell” as it applies to turtles was apparently a relative term. Bizarrely, somehow, because it was scared or shocked or disoriented from the blow to its shell, the turtle stuck out its head. Mark immediately went into action and chopped it off.
The worst was over, it seemed. The recipes we read suggested we hang the turtle to let out the blood, which was shockingly red and mammalian-like. While the blood dripped out, we decided to watch Babette’s Feast.
When the movie was over, Mark started butchering the turtle, which proved to be extremely difficult and involved using several different knives and occasionally screaming when a claw would wrap itself around one of his fingers. (We were forewarned that turtle body parts continue to move for hours after the animals is dead, but it didn’t make it any less disturbing.)
I played it safe and prepped leeks, garlic and the bouquet garnis and tried not to think about what was happening. Every so often, I’d hear Mark say “Eew! Gross!” at something he’d find– the internal organs, the way the shell looked when it was separated from the flesh– it all seemed to be disgusting. I tried not to look as I toasted some bread to make croutons.
Eventually, we managed to make a soup. It didn’t look very good. I didn’t even want to take a picture of the finished product. It tasted… okay. The turtle meat tasted like a cross between frog legs and chicken, which was… okay. I looked over at Mark and he had stopped eating.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. Suddenly everything seemed so sad and awkward. Mark began to explain that he felt as though he hadn’t butchered the turtle properly and that there might be a chance that we’d get sick from salmonella and that I had picked up the cutting board for the turtle before picking up the cutting board for the croutons. He started to point out all the surfaces in my apartment that might have salmonella on them.
I started to get upset because I felt attacked, as though he were accusing me of not taking the necessary precautions to keep things sanitary; that my entire apartment was now tainted and the food I had cooked and eaten was tainted. I felt disappointed at how anticlimactic the actual soup was and couldn’t hide the fact it felt like the whole day was a waste of time if all we were left with was mediocre soup that might make us violently ill.
He was sad that I was disappointed and wanted me to enjoy the time we had spent together. He said I was making him seem crazy and paranoid. He described how unsanitary he felt the turtle’s tank at the supermarket was and I asked him why he still wanted to go through with it if that was the case and he explained that he didn’t anticipate how difficult it would be to kill it. “You don’t understand because you didn’t have that experience,” he said.
We went back and forth like a married couple dealing with the fall out from a crime we committed together. He seemed resentful because he had to deal with the guilt of killing the turtle and I didn’t. “You were the one who was gung-ho about butchering it,” I said. He promised me that I wouldn’t have to do the butchering and now that he felt bad about it, he was lashing out at me, I thought. He, in turn, was offended I said he was “gung-ho” because it made him sound like a violent psychopath.
We eventually reached a point where talking wasn’t going to make it better. We had analyzed and discussed everything half a dozen times and were no better off from when we started. I wiped down everything with bleach a third time, but the apartment still felt like it was crawling with bacteria. We both apologized for being childish, but things were still weird between us.
“Is the only lesson to be learned from this that we should never make turtle soup ever again?” I asked. He said yes. We hugged and he went home. We both knew that we’d forgive each other and that everything would be back to normal the next day, but we still felt a little strange and somehow defeated.
I decided to continue simmering the soup for another few hours after he left. Anyone who’s ever made a soup knows that the longer it cooks, the better it is. So throwing caution, paranoia, disappointment and resentment into the wind, I tasted a spoonful. It was delicious. I texted Mark to tell him how good it was and asked him if he wanted me to save some for him. And of course, he said yes.