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Eats and Drinks

Shell Game

Traveling the Terrapin Trail in Search of Maryland's Disappearing Dish

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 9/17/1997

It's been called "the keystone of Maryland cuisine," the "supreme table delicacy," and the "monarch of Maryland's menus."

It has a shell, it's from the bay, but it's not what you might think.

It's Malaclemmys concentra concentrata, otherwise called the diamondback terrapin, an aquatic turtle indigenous to the Chesapeake's salt water swamps and tidal rivers. For generations this seven-inch reptile sat front and center in the state's culinary cornucopia.

Maryland, in short, was for terrapin.Forget the crab. This Johnny-come-lately crustacean wasn't even commercially harvested in great numbers until the latter half of the 19th century. Soft crabs were once thought to be poisonous, and the whole "crab house" racket didn't crank up until the 1920s. (Crabs did have a role 100 years ago-they were ground up and fed to terrapins.)

And the oyster? It was fodder for the hoi polloi for much of its culinary career-the workingman's shellfish, which social critic H.L. Mencken relegated to "cheap lunchrooms" and "suppers in the cellars of bankrupt churches."

European settlers have been eating diamondbacks since the 16th century (and Native Americans longer than that). Washington ate them, as did Lincoln, Marquis de Lafayette, Grover Cleveland, and Winston Churchill. Oliver Wendell Holmes dubbed Baltimore the "gastronomic metropolis of the universe" and suggested we "get that lady off from the Battle Monument and plant a terrapin in her place." And when Baltimore Mayor Howard Jackson tossed his hat into the 1938 gubernatorial race he promised "two terrapin in every pot."

But chances are you've never eaten terrapin. It seems that unless you're of a certain age (say, over 50) and of a certain social standing (old money, old family) the word terrapin evokes only the University of Maryland sports mascot and a mid-70s Grateful Dead album.

So what happened? Where did the little fellers go?

"They're not endangered," says Maryland Department of Natural Resources biologist Glenn Therres, my first contact on the terrapin trail. "The terrapin in the Chesapeake Bay is doing well, though probably in reduced numbers from when [Captain John] Smith first sailed the bay."

Proliferating shoreline development is robbing the turtles of their spawning beaches. (With salmonlike homing ability, female terrapin-"heifers" in turtlespeak-return to the beach of their birth each year to lay eggs in a shallow hole.) Many terrapin also drown in crab pots some recreational crabbers sloppily leave in the water for days at time.

Of course, if you want to catch terrapin yourself, you can. Maryland law stipulates only that you don't take them between May 1 and July 31 (the egg-laying season), or if they're less than six inches long (measured front to back on the lower carapace). It's also forbidden to disturb, destroy, or steal their eggs.

While diamondbacks might be in the marshes, they're certainly not on Baltimore menus. Highlandtown's storied Haussner's was perhaps the last area restaurant to feature terrapin with any regularity. When I called this grand dame of eateries, I was told terrapin were too hard to acquire and hadn't been offered for a few years now.

Buying them from the fishmonger is problematic too. A sign reading terrapin still hangs at Faidley's Seafood in Lexington Market, but don't believe it.

"No, we don't have terrapin," says Bill Devine, the playfully gruff head of the company. "They've gone the way of everything good. The people who caught them are dead, and the people who ate them are dead."

Here's a man who doesn't mince words. "If there'd been terrapin at McDonald's, the young people would be eating it," he continues. "We're into the third generation of folks who think that fish is either square or oblong; they've forgotten they have heads and tails."

Faidley's, Devine says, hasn't sold terrapin since the late 80s. But he remembers the turtle days well, claiming he "fell in love with terrapin" after his first forkful some 38 years ago. Gannon's Restaurant on Frederick Road was his favorite turtle-tasting spot.

"Old man Faidley had barrels of them in the basement of his house," Devine recalls. "His kids used to complain that they couldn't sleep because they could hear them scratching all night long."

(Terrapin, like lobster, are best sold and cooked live-kept in pens or pools until needed. The long-demolished Rennert Hotel, where Mencken frequently went for his reptile repast, was said to keep more than 5,000 terrapin corralled in its basement.)

There are no terrapin across town at Cross Street Market either. Tom Chagouris, president of Nick's Inner Harbor Seafood, hasn't sold them for at least a decade.

"The younger generation, they don't know what to do with them," he says. "We used to sell a lot of them."

At age 40, Chagouris admits that he's part of the terrapin-shy generation-folks whose childhoods probably included pet green turtles in little plastic pools.

"Yeah," says Chagouris, reflecting on the finicky baby boomers. "They think, Turtles? How can you eat them?'"

The terrapin trail ultimately leads to the Maryland Wholesale Seafood Market, the vast fish-cluttered warehouse and loading dock in Jessup. As I stroll through this complex full of harried workers, my requests for terrapin are met with shrugs, blank looks, or, at best, advice to try the such-and-such company somewhere else. ("Oh, turtles?" one portly man responds brightly. "My momma made them back in Sicily with a sauce.")

Finally at Martin Seafood Co. I hit pay dirt (sort of). They don't have diamondbacks at the moment, but they can get them.

"In the winter, which is their season, we can call these guys [on the Eastern Shore] and tell them to go get us some terrapin," company President Billy Martin says. "But it's not a big item anymore. Nobody wants them; nobody knows how to cook them."

Martin rattles off the names of former terrapin buyers: Haussner's, the Maryland Club, the Colonial Tearoom in Hutzler's department store, and several area country clubs.

"They used to sell for a dollar an inch, but I think the last ones we sold were just something like $6 dollars apiece, no matter what size they were," he adds.

Martin salesman Steve Webster then reveals he's a bit of a terrapin expert. It seems he trained as a chef, and he worked at the Maryland Club kitchen for a few years in the late 80s and early 90s. One of his duties was to help prepare the club's famous "Terrapin la Maryland," which many consider the ne plus ultra rendition of the dish.

"Nobody in the kitchen really enjoyed doing it," Webster recalls. "When the turtles came in it was like, 'Oh boy, here comes three days of work.'"

Fresh-from-the-wild turtles were kept in a pen in the club's basement and fed corn meal to purge their systems. A thorough washing of the mud-loving critters was conducted too. Ultimately they were plunked, alive and kicking, into boiling water.

"We would boil two at a time in a small pot for about five minutes," Webster explains. "Then you'd remove them, pull their heads out, rub the skin off, and clip the nails. [For the second phase of preparation] we had a huge pot where we could cook like 60 or so at a time for another hour. When you pushed on a leg and the bone popped out they were done."

There's not a whole lot of meat under a turtle's shell, but what's there was dutifully scraped out (along with the liver) and stewed in a butter-rich broth seasoned with sherry. (Female terrapin frequently carried marble-sized eggs, which were used to garnish the dish.) Sometimes the meat was scraped off the leg bones as well.

"I think it looked more traditional to keep the legs in the stew," Webster says.

And the taste?

"In all the time I made it I never really liked it," he says. "It's an acquired taste-kind of bland, and the eggs are dry."

Martin compares terrapin to stringy beef, but says that when it was mixed with all the butter and sherry "it came out tasting pretty good."

(Curiously, no one seems to evoke the ever-popular "tastes like chicken" analogy when describing terrapin; some say it tastes like . . . muskrat.)

The haughty, members-only Maryland Club may still prepare its famous terrapin, but the current chef didn't return my calls (the club was closed for a summer break). But there is at least one place in town that still has terrapin, and-in reflection of the changing times-it's not a restaurant or a seafood stall. It's the National Aquarium down at the harbor, where a couple of diamondbacks can be seen swimming around in a tidewater marsh exhibit. They really are pretty creatures, with yellowish orange shells decorated with intricate geometric patterns (triangular more than diamond shaped). An aquarium staffer grabs one for us-a female, she suspects-to afford us a closer look. A mottled neck pokes gingerly from the shell. Curious, dark eyes flash from the pointed head.

One thing becomes immediately clear: I could never plunge this cute little "heifer" head first into a vat of boiling water. No way. Not for all the sherry and butter in the world.

And then I notice the curious shape of her mouth-turned up, as if in a permanent smile.

I think she knew it too.

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