Snapping Turtle Soup

Where I grew up, there were a variety of turtles. The painted turtle was, by far, the most common. There was also the box turtle, and the snapping turtle. The latter was the largest and the most dangerous. I wrote a bit about snapping turtles in Cars, concerning my earliest close encounter with one. I had always known they were something to be wary of, but that experience impressed upon me that a snapping turtle was something to take very seriously.

Not something you’d want to tangle with

Fast forward several years, to when I recall walking home, carrying one by the tail.

How, where and when I caught the creature I can’t say. I was very likely swimming at the creek and managed to grab it before it could scramble into the water, because I clearly remember walking barefoot along the macadam road, wearing nothing but a bathing suit, and holding the turtle out at arm’s length, careful to keep its jaws well away from my leg. The turtle could stretch its head quite far, so this was no easy feat. Also, the turtle was big, about two feet from toe to tail, and it was heavy, meaning I had to stay focused and not allow my arm to drop.

Why I was carrying a snapping turtle home is no mystery. I was going to butcher it so Mom could make snapping turtle soup.

When I got the beast home, I got my dad’s pistol and attempted to coax it out of its shell, but the turtle was having none of that. So, I deposited it in a metal tub, where it would be safe until I found a way to kill it. As I walked away, I heard it scratching, and saw that it was standing on its hind legs, its neck stretched out to its fullest extent, trying to get out of the tub. So, I shot it through the head.

This is what a snapping turtle can do. The jaws are a good thing to stay away from.

Even then, Dad—with the help of some vice-grips—helped me pull the head out (it had, naturally retreated back into its shell) so he could chop it off. Then he smashed the head with a sledgehammer and burned it. That’s how lethal a snapping turtle’s bite can be, even after the head is separated from the body.

With the jaws of death safely removed, I was free to carve up the body, which kept trying to crawl off the table. I flipped it over and attempted to skin it, but it kept waving its feet around, making for a very difficult job.

With the help of the vice-grips and a box cutter, I was able to slice away the leather-like skin, and then use a hacksaw to separate the underside of the shell from the top. It wasn’t easy, and it took quite a while, but at length I had the legs removed and the shell separated. I carved off what meat I could, then set about gutting it.

A bonus awaited me as I began pulling the insides out of the upturned shell. It was a female turtle, with several dozen mature eggs just about ready to lay. I pulled these out and put them in a big jar of formaldehyde. They kept me occupied for months, as I dissected them one by one.

Scraping out the rest wasn’t a big job, but it did take time, about an hour, overall. And when I finally got to the heart, it was still beating.

This is obviously not me, but it’s pretty much what gutting the turtle looked like.

I wrapped up the meat and put it in the freezer for Mom to make soup out of, then I set about cleaning the shell. This was done by leaving it outside, next to an ant’s nest. In a few days, it was completely stripped, and I had an authentic turtle shell. Not that I could do much with it, but it was still pretty cool.

That’s the story of the snapping turtle. Unremarkable, fairly mundane and of little consequence except that I had a turtle shell to play with and a clutch of eggs to investigate, which would stave off boredom for a while. From this distance, however, and with grandchildren approaching the age I was then, I see these events in a different light.

I have no idea how old I was at that time. Certainly no older than 16, and probably younger because I wouldn’t have been that thrilled with a turtle shell at 16. I was most likely 12 or 13, which is old enough to be on one’s own, even these days, but I wouldn’t want to think of a 13 year old, on his own, well away from any help (the swimming hole was half a mile from the nearest house, across fields and through woods, and over a mile and a quarter from my house) doing something as hazardous as chasing down a snapping turtle, then carrying it home by the tail.

Also, judging by my memory of this—and many other—events, I seemed to have been allowed to walk about with loaded weapons. And a jar filled with formaldehyde? Surely every household is well stocked with formaldehyde. (That, however, is the least mysterious thing about this story: my dad used it in his upholstery business to sterilize the finished furniture.)

The truth is, even then I realized my upbringing was different, and I felt privileged to have the freedoms and resources I enjoyed. It wasn’t a big deal, however, as living as we did wasn’t all that unusual; I was just glad we didn’t live in a town where walking around with loaded pistols, even then, was frowned upon, and where there was a decided lack of swamps and creeks and woodlands. And, of course, hardly a snapping turtle to be found.

As for the outcome of this adventure: the shell remained with me for years, the eggs proved a useful diversion for several months, and the turtle meat sat—slowly succumbing to freezer burn—in the back of the icebox.

And Mom never did make any Snapping Turtle Soup.