Turtle soup: the hottest dish on New York menus

In 1783, George Washington feasted on it (washed down with punch, according to later accounts) at Fraunces Tavern during his farewell banquet for Continental Army officers.

Early 19th century tavern owners took out newspaper ads letting the public know when a fresh pot would be whipped up.

And it was on the menu at New York’s biggest and best restaurants until the early 20th century, when it almost entirely disappeared from bill of fares all across the city.

What dish was such a delicacy? Green turtle soup, and New Yorkers of the 18th and 19th centuries couldn’t get enough of it.

“In 19th century New York, the only dish that could rival a juicy beefsteak or a dozen plump oysters on the half shell was turtle soup, and it’s partisans were legion,” writes William Grimes in Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York.

Two restaurants vied for turtle soup supremacy: the Terrapin Lunch on Ann Street and Broadway and Bayard’s, at 11-13 State Street.

Bayard’s turtle soup was recalled by an old New Yorker, Charles Haynes Haswell, in his Reminiscences of an Octogenarian, published in 1896.

“Here turtle soup was dispensed which was worthy of the animal of which it was made; not the puree of this time, which is served at some of our leading restaurants and clubs; not a thin consomme of that which might be calves’ head or veal, but bona fide turtle, with callipash, callipee, and forced-meat balls.”

It stands to reason that the first turtles and terrapins who ended up in New Yorkers’ soup bowls came from the waters around the city (like Turtle Bay, perhaps). Into the 19th century, however, they arrived here from the Bahamas and other parts of the Caribbean.

Why did turtle soup fall out of fashion? Maybe it had to do with the fact that turtles themselves were almost harvested to extinction, says Leslie Day in Field Guide to the Natural World of New York City.

Or perhaps it was just a food fad that lost its buzz.

[Top photo: Saveur magazine; second image: Evening Post, 1807; third image: NYPL; fourth image: Evening Post, 1812]

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28 Responses to “Turtle soup: the hottest dish on New York menus”

  1. mateodepoose Says:

    Joseph Mitchell wrote a piece about the terrapin business and New York City’s terrapin market. It was reprinted in Up in the Old Hotel as “The Same As Monkey Glands.”

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Yes, I saw many mentions of it while I was researching this. Another reason to read (and reread) Mitchell!

  3. trilby1895 Says:

    Why was I surprised to see the title of this little gem of information when, by now, I should be expecting this kind of fascinating reporting from Mr. Ephemeral? Although I’d heard of this New York delicacy over the years, the appeal of this soup has escaped me. Can anyone enlighten? What did it taste like? Fishy? Meaty? Delicate? Strong and pungent? Was heavy cream used in the creation? Citric juices? I want to know what those New Yorkers experienced. Thank you in advance.

  4. Jill Says:

    What does “families supplied” mean?

    • Zoe Says:

      To Jill:

      Probably people hunted for turtles in local freshwater marsh ponds outside of NYC in the country (?). Please see my other comment here about how they live in ponds in CT (outside of NYC in the country) & sometimes wander onto the roads.

      Local Connecticut & New Jersey & Long Island farming & fishing & hunting & ice harvesting ‘families’ (small ‘family’ owned farms & oystermen & lobstermen & fishermen & ice harvesters) supplied New Yorkers w/ food & ice. (Shipped by boats & later trains).

  5. Zoe Says:

    This is very sad — especially because these large turtles were/are HUNDREDS of years old.

    I grew up in CT an hour from the City in a house built in the former cherry orchard of an estate* landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted. As w/ his other designs the estate was landscaped to represent various aspects of nature & farmland (faux ponds/German style pine forest/wheat field/cherry orchard/gazebo on a wooded hill/gardens/stone & wooden bridges/winding carriage lanes/brick swimming pool. (* The Hockanum Estate of abolitionist & friend of President Lincoln — 19th c. NYC railroad businessman Morris Ketchum. He was also godfather to local CT & NYC philanthropist Morris Ketchum Jesup — founder of the WMCA formerly on 3rd St.).

    There was a marsh pond there w/ cattails in summer which we skated on in winter (probably there on the original colonial farm property owned by the Burr family prior to sale to Mr.Ketchum & landscaping by Mr.Olmsted).

    One day we found a large snapping turtle in the bottom of our driveway. We put it in a large wicker laundry basket. (In the early & mid 60s they were still handwoven of wicker Children!). Then we put it back in the marsh pond.

    During the time of year that they are mating they will get confused & wander onto dry land searching for a mate. Several years ago one of them wandered onto the Parkway or highway exit (I’ve forgotten wether I95 or Parkway) & a woman writing about it locally had to have the traffic stopped etc. before getting it back into a pond.

    They live VERY long lives (= hundreds of years). I am not an expert in zoology but I read that they (snapping turtles etc.) are one of the surviving prehistoric animals.

  6. Ana Lucrecia Says:

    Every post every week?
    Is this a website about old New York or a contest for the most boring unsolicited autobiography ?

    • Zoe Says:

      Re. Ana Lucrecia’s comment:

      Or the rudest pettiest post which refers to things as “autobiographical” when they actually reference historic people &

      Not everyone possesses her/his blinding wit. Some would argue that speaking about historic places & people in a comment is a bit more valuable & far less “boring” than soulless personal attacks.

    • Zoe Says:

      Re. Ana Lucrecia’s comment:

      I’m sure Ephemeral appreciates other people policing her blog for her w/ their unbridled arrogance.

  7. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    My thoughts on the “families supplied” line: either the seller is saying that he intends to have lots of soup to feed large groups of people, or it’s an indication that the seller runs a more genteel establishment.

    My understanding is that in the early 19th century, before the concept of dining out as we know it came along, taverns—really the only restaurants of the era—were rough and tumble places you wouldn’t bring your wife or kids (assuming they were even allowed to enter legally in the first place). By advertising “families supplied,” perhaps it’s a signal that the place is family-friendly.

    If anyone has any insight on this (thank you Zoe for yours!) I’d love to hear it.

    • Zoe Says:

      Sorry I didn’t read the context (after the first read) when I answered Jill (shame on me!). I just know that our farms in Fairfield County CT sent a LOT of produce & oysters etc. to the City. (A prized family run Oyster farm still operates out of Westport).

  8. trilby1895 Says:

    Thank you for the gender clarification. Not that it makes any difference (cue “Seinfeld” episode on a similar note).

  9. Zoe Says:

    Various NYC news reports just stated that dozens of turtles delayed flights at JFK yesterday; when they wandered too close to the runway & had to be removed by Port Authority to a safer place. This happens in June & July. (See my other post about this happening in CT an hour from the City also).

  10. Ed Newman Says:

    Just go to New Orleans, where turtle soup is still devoured with relish. It’s delish.

  11. The fence post turtles adorning East 49th Street | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] did colonial settlers give this swatch of East Midtown its name because of the plethora of turtles they saw in a creek that emptied into the East […]

  12. Barbara Says:

    Can’t believe it – here I am once again and a whole year later still finding this article, history of Turtle Bay fascinating. Oh….to be able to spend an hour back when the area was a meadowland bordering the bay…

  13. trilby1895 Says:

    OOOOOPS…I mean trilby1895.

  14. Gene Baumwoll Says:

    Turtle Bay, an actual cove of the East River, received its name back in the 17th century by Dutch settlers. As the story goes, the cove was shaped like a knife, so the settlers named it “deutal,” which is Dutch for “a bent blade.”

  15. A stunning Christmas feast served to guests at a posh Gilded Age hotel | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] or so relishes (lots of caviar and “chow-chow”), soups (turtle, of course; it’s an old New York favorite), and fish (codfish tongues?) before getting to the official […]

  16. The stone and iron turtles decorating New York City | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] New Yorkers hunted them in estuaries and salt marshes, putting turtle soup on every restaurant menu. Contemporary city residents know them as the scaly native reptiles who occasionally pop their […]

  17. Roosevelt Island Historical Society » Weekend, June 11-12, 2022 – TAKE A CLOSE LOOK AND THERE MAY BE A TURTLE NEARBY Says:

    […] New Yorkers hunted them in estuaries and salt marshes, putting turtle soup on every restaurant menu. Contemporary city residents know them as the scaly native reptiles who occasionally pop their […]

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