Snapping Turtle Stew
Here is an extract from The Hungry Cyclist Pedalling The Americas in Search of The Perfect Meal. The day I learnt about snapping turtles.
I had never seen a snapping turtle. I didn’t even know they existed, but they were a local Minnesota delicacy and Paul insisted, the next day, that I track one down. With the sort of half-hearted hangover that can only be achieved by drinking litres of tasteless American beer, I made my way accompanied by Paul to the local butcher.
Ketter’s Meat Market and Locker hadn’t changed for a hundred years. It had one of those false flat fronts I had only ever seen before in westerns, and a wooden deck raised a few feet above the street. On the counter stood a huge old-fashioned set of scales and bundles of sausage strings were hung up on the back wall. The dusty shelves were lined with bags of various types of jerky – air-cured slivers of marinated meat the favoured chews of cowboys and cyclists – and disturbing jars of pickled turkey gizzards that would have looked more at home in the laboratory of a mad biologist.
The proprietor was an happy fellow who seemed too skinny to be a butcher. A blood-stained apron hung around his neck and in his large rubber gloved hands was a menacing meat hook.
‘Wal, this is a friend of mine. He wants to see your turtles.’
The butcher gave me an investigative look as if to establish I wasn’t an operative for the CIA.
Paul stayed back in the store while Wal led me behind the scenes into a cool concrete corridor lined with the mechanised heavy doors of refrigeration and lit by white fluorescent strips. At the end of the passage a set of damp concrete steps took us underground to another large metal refrigerator door, which opened into a dark, dank, musty cell. I began to recall a schoolboy production of Sweeney Todd and visualised the other unlucky tourists who had came down here to ‘see the turtles’ and who were now being sold upstairs as jerky and gizzards.
A single fluorescent strip hanging from the ceiling flickered to life like an injured insect and adjusting to the raw, unnatural light that now filled the small room I made out eight or ten monsters huddled on the floor around my feet.
‘Keep ’em down here cos the cold makes ’em sleepy. They can get pretty frisky when their blood’s up.’
I had expected to be shown a handful of terrapins paddling about in a dirty fish tank. These lifeless monsters were the size of coffee tables. Armoured horned heads with yellow eyes and ferocious pointed jaws peered out from thick, uneven, lichen-covered shells. Stiff, powerful arms with thick claws rested on the ground on either side of their grotesque faces. These things weren’t turtles, they were prehistoric beasts. Stupidly squatting down for a closer look and a possible photo, I reached out a hand for a stroke. Before I made contact two strong arms grabbed my shoulders and I was yanked backwards, my buttocks landing on the cold hard floor.
‘You wanna lose those little English fingers you’re going the right way about it.’
‘Sorry, it’s just that I thought . . . .’
The butcher took an old broom from the corner of the room and cautiously began prodding the head of an especially large specimen. I can’t say I saw what happened next, it happened so fast, but after a powerful head movement on the part of the turtle the butcher’s broom was six inches shorter.
‘That’s why we call ’em snapping turtles.’
‘And these things live in the wild?’
‘Sure. They make great eating too – four different types of meat per turtle. Makes a fine stew.’
We handed over a few dollars in exchange for a kilo of ‘snapper meat’ and headed home. Paul’s mother was a snapper-stew aficionado and in her small kitchen, which was a confusion of pot and pans, recipe books and washing up, she went to work. The rubbery meat of different shades was cut into small chunks and browned on each side in a little butter before being added to a large pot. Thrown in with it were chopped vegetables – onions, potatoes, celery, carrots and tomatoes – cloves of garlic and plenty of seasoning. The contents were covered in water and left to stew over a gentle heat. Paul’s house quickly filled with the sweet aroma of snapper stew and soon enough his family gathered around the kitchen table. Steaming bowls of this hearty Minnesota classic were passed from place to place, and after grace was said, the slurping began.
Chewing on the subtly flavoured meat and drinking up the warming broth, I realised the butcher was right. These strange-looking creatures that lived in the swampy waters and ditches of Minnesota made a great stew
- 1kg snapping turtle meat
- 150g salted butter
- 1 tablespoon cooking oil
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 3 celery sticks, chopped
- 120ml dry sherry
- 2 cloves of garlic
- pinch of dried thyme leaves
- 1 pinch dried rosemary
- 1 400g can lima beans
- 3 medium potatoes, diced
- 3 carrots, chopped
- 1 400g can tomatoes
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 bunch of fresh parsley and your favourite hot sauce