The Soup with Snap A Tale of Turtle Soup
by Gene Bourg
Gumbo will always be the archetypal dish in the hierarchy of traditional Creole soups and stews. But in the hearts and minds of most lovers of south-Louisiana cooking, a thick and spicy turtle soup is many a gumbo’s closest rival. Maybe turtle soup’s mystique stems as much from its relative scarcity as it does from its powerful, yet elegant, flavor. When it is found on the daily menu of a New Orleans restaurant, the establishment usually has been around for a couple of generations or more, a sign that this dish sits staunchly in the category of “classic,” or maybe “old-fashioned.” Making turtle soup at home has to be a labor of love. The most stalwart home cook often hesitates to whip up a tureen of it for family and friends, possibly because finding fresh turtle meat is no snap, or possibly because doing it right can take enough pots and pans to challenge any dishwasher’s fortitude. Some settle for mock turtle soup, made with veal, beef or oxtail. But none of those imparts that subtle, but recognizable, presence of the sea taste that turtle meat delivers. More than 50 turtle and terrapin species inhabit the watery parts of the globe. Along the coastline of south Louisiana, the Gulf of Mexico and the tangle of inlets and swamps amount to a virtual paradise for green and snapping turtles, the two species that provide most of what ends up as turtle soup on dining-room tables. A smaller percentage of the creatures find their way to a dark-red, peppery sauce piquante, a longtime favorite of the population along the bayous of southwest Louisiana’s Cajun country. Like most warhorses of the Creole stable, a turtle soup rarely turns out well in the hands of a cook who puts experimentation above respect for tradition. No innovator, at least, has come up with a better list of spices, seasonings, garnishes and techniques than the ones that emerged over almost two centuries of New Orleans
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gastronomy. On the textbook roster of flavor enhancers are onions, scallions, tomato, lemon, bay leaf, thyme and clove. At the table, add a dash or two of sherry and a crumble of hardcooked egg and revel in a deep reddish-brown liquid that thickly coats the spoon and lavishes the palate with as many good flavors as the law allows. Among the traits that make this soup a paradigm of the true Creole kitchen is that it’s as much at home on a white damask tablecloth as it is on the bare-wood tabletop of a fishing camp. The same holds for restaurant categories. The turtle soup served at Commander’s Palace, occupying a corner in the heart of the toney Garden District since the nineteenth century, has been one of its hallmark dishes for decades. From the pantry and spice rack come the seasonings for any turtle soup recipe-- onions, scallions, and tomato paste for color, garlic, sweet pepper, bay leaf, thyme and a few cloves. Before it leaves the kitchen, the cupful is laced with fresh lemon juice and sherry. The consumer who chooses to add a squirt or two more of sherry to his soup may be surprised to learn he’s following the lead of a member of the English nobility.
TRENDSETTING THE TABLE
Our Daily Bread Pudding French Bread Foreword by Gene Bourg Bread Pudding Background by Kendall Gensler
For many a newcomer to New Orleans, deciphering its quirky culture means first dispensing with American-style logic and then learning a new vocabulary.
the great majority of the ovens in these German and Italian stores turned out the sort of bread that New Orleanians have always known as "French."
Where else does crossing a river mean heading south to reach the East Bank?
Fewer than a handful of old-line bakeries producing French bread in the city are still around. To find them in the phone book, go to Leidenheimer, Gendusa and Binder.
Where else does the term "neutral ground" refer, not to a emilitarized zone, but rather to the median dividing a street. And where else would the baking of a traditional bread called "French" be left exclusively to Germans and Italians? In the Yellow Pages of a 1940s New Orleans telephone directory is a list of more than 200 small neighborhood bread bakeries, most of them identified by the owner's family name. Finding an obvious French name among them--like Bourgeois, Villere or Livaudais-- is next to impossible. About 90 percent of the list is filled with such monikers as Bacher, Ruffino, Franz, Brocato, Costanza and Klotz. But, it's a safe bet that 26 | CULINARY CONCIERGE | NEW ORLEANS
Mention this trivia to somebody scarfing down a sandwich in any of the city's legion of poor-boy ( po-boy ) shops, or a bread pudding in a fancy Creole dining place, and you'll probably get a blank stare. What really matters is that New Orleans' classic New Orleans-style French bread is still with us, and it's not an endangered species. New Orleans' French-style bread enjoys a mystique shared only by a few of the city's culinary classics. One possible reason is that the city of its birth is the only place in America you'll find it--thin-crusted, cottony, and sliced only minutes beore it is eaten.