Restaurant week kicks off this week in Baltimore, with great deals on meals to be had at some of the city’s choicest spots. Though artisanal spins on traditional foods are likely to be in high supply — think, fancy pot pies and gourmet fried chicken — there’s one old-school favorite you won’t see on the menu.
Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, few foods were more synonymous with fine Maryland cuisine than the diamondback terrapin, served at some of the world’s finest restaurants, from Delmonico’s in New York City to Blanco’s in San Francisco. You can see them at the New York Public Library’s online collection of menus, which go back as far as the 1850s.
The Maryland Club in Mount Vernon was long considered “the very shrine of terrapin-eating,” according to a 1952 article in The Sun. President William Howard Taft was a fan; when he supped there in 1914, he was served Chesapeake turtle along with a hot Maryland biscuit.
At the Maryland Club, terrapin were brought in by the crawling crate-load from November through March, then tossed in a bin where they prepared to meet their fate. Recipes called for them to be boiled live like lobster — watch out for the head, or you might lose a finger. After an hour in the stewpot, the shell was removed and the meat sauteed with some salt, pepper and butter as well as sherry or dry Madeira wine. Female terrapin were served with their bright yellow eggs.
As for the taste? A French journalist visiting the United States in the late 1800s wrote: “The flavour is so pronounced that one is bound to think it either delicious or detestable.”
Love it — or hate it.
In Maryland, terrapin consumption declined during Prohibition, when sherry became more difficult to come by. In 2007, the state banned the commercial harvest of terrapins, closing the last of the fisheries. So have your oysters, your crab cakes, heck, even snack on some frog legs. But leave this delicacy to the history books, and to the University of Maryland, which boasts the turtle as its mascot.