Recently, I was invited to a turtle fry in Ripley, Ohio, an hour east of Cincinnati along U.S. Route 52. According to local legend, it’s been going on for generations. I went with three questions: 1) How do you catch a turtle 2) How do you prepare it and 3) Is it worth eating?
Like all events in Ripley, there was a fascinating crowd. I sat across from a couple who had spent the last 30 years sailing around the world. The last time they’d enjoyed a good turtle fry was in Bali.
But that night I preferred Ripley to Bali. The tiny historic town is the only place where you can sit in a backyard with a sprawling view of the Ohio River and talk to a microcosm of the world: liberals, conservatives, a retired actor, a journalist, professors, teachers and artists — a cultural Mecca in the middle of Appalachia.
The turtle we had that night was floured, salt and peppered, and then browned just like chicken, the hostess told me later. The pieces were then placed in cookers and steamed with water and beer for six to eight hours at 300 degrees. A lot of work goes into a turtle fry, and a most of it is in the catching.
I asked Gabe, the host of the turtle fry along with his mother, Kristy Scott, how you go about catching a turtle.
He put it succinctly: “First we piss off the turtles, then we call Dad.”
Dad (Rick Scott) told me that turtles are hunted in all the creeks around Ripley. All you need to hunt a turtle is a fishing license, but this doesn’t mean the hunting is easy. You think hunting a Cape buffalo is dangerous, try digging for an Ohio turtle. Hunters submerge themselves in the creek and dig for turtles under tree roots and inside holes along the creek’s banks, Rick says. You’re looking for turtle butts, Gabe says, because the last thing you want to do is grab the head of a turtle that has buried itself in a hole.
“This is very dangerous because when turtles are disturbed, they bite,” Rick says, “and these bites are extremely painful.”
There’s also the danger of grabbing a muskrat instead of a turtle.
“Muskrats are not very forgiving of the disturbance,” Rick says.
To boot, each hunt takes two to four miles, lasts five to seven hours and involves carrying up to 150 pounds of turtle in a duffel bag at least part of the way.
In other words, this is definitely the kind of affair you should follow up with a thank-you note.
While I never got the guts to try turtle, I did enjoy the wine and conversation. Reformed vegetarian that I am, I asked everyone around me what it was like to eat turtle. While I imagined turtle meat would have been a thin, melt-in-your-mouth kind of affair, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Apparently, it’s dense but tender, bony and has a flavor that manages to be delicate yet intense.
Some people said it tasted like pork chops, others that it tasted like, yes, chicken (only the dark meat). A true turtle connoisseur said, “Every part of the turtle tastes different. The neck tastes one way, the arms taste another.”
But my favorite response was, “I kept wanting to turn the dish upside down to see if it would flip back over.”
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