Monday, November 14, 2011

Mock Turtle Soup

Tenniel's witty interpretation of a Mock Turtle

The Victorians loved their turtle soup. They loved it so much they ran out of turtles.

If the Victorians were good at anything, however, it was tinkering, and getting around troublesome problems like things running out. Things hadn’t run out before, because the machinery for eradicating them hadn’t been developed, though a few species Victorians found delicious were rapidly discovering that the rifle was an instrument well-suited to reducing their ability to find a mate. The Dodo, the Passenger Pigeon, the Buffalo — not big fans of the rifle. Whales, which seemingly filled an ocean so large as to supply them into infinity, found themselves speared unendingly on the points of harpoons. Giant sea turtles were not nearly as quick as those sent to catch them.

 So enterprising cooks invented Mock Turtle Soup out of what they had at hand: namely, lots of calf’s heads, horns, hoofs and tails. Animal husbandry was really taking off, with domestic species being bred to produce larger, better-tasting, and more docile versions of themselves on farms increasingly dedicated to the factory means of production, and since the people they fed worked in factories, there was far less time to butcher an animal at home and render the tough bits edible for hours and hours over an open flame.

Tinned food was a blessing for working Moms, and Mock Turtle Soup was one of their favorites. It’s almost identical to Calf’s Head Soup. Actually, it is Calf’s Head Soup, but that doesn’t sound nearly as appetizing. The Victorians weren’t afraid to call a thing according to its composition or destiny, and knew they weren’t fooling anyone if a little bit of fakery was involved, so they had a lot of mock this and mock that’s.

 Those witty Victorians Lewis Carroll and John Tenniel were very up-front about the mock turtle in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the perfect creature for a world of make-believe. Tenniel’s illustration gives the hapless creature the appropriate parts, making of it a Frankenstein of calf and turtle. Here it is being addressed by the equally patchwork Griffin-like thing. The Victorians took too much laudanum by far. It helped them cope with the damp, the whalebone corsets, the primitive dentistry, the grime, the constant childbearing and puerperal fever, the handlebar mustaches, the parlor games and the terrible, stifling ennui.

 Mary Harris Frazer offers several recipes for Mock Turtle Soup in her Kentucky Receipt Book of 1903 — as do all cookery books of the era — plus one for Calf’s Head Soup and even one for Mock Terrapin Soup. They are all much the same, and usually include the distinctive addition of hard boiled egg yolks and lemon.

Kentucky Receipt Book, Mary Harris Frazer, 1903

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