For this month’s report on “crazy,” “weird” and “gross-looking/sounding” food items found at your local supermarket, the tables have been turned. CityBeat’s Contributing Dining Editor Anne Mitchell offered me a potential topic: mock turtle soup.
“Obviously it’s not made from turtles,” she wrote in an e-mail, “but I’ve never had the nerve to try it.”
Mock turtle soup? The same mock turtle soup I’ve been eating since I was a small child, saddling up to the Hitching Post restaurant on the West Side with Grandma and, like a bar regular, not even having to announce my lunch order? That’s “weird?"
Yes, of course it is.
There probably hasn’t been a year in my life that I haven’t ingested at least a can of mock turtle soup. (Well, I doubt I had it those first couple of years in my baby bottle, but my parents were young, so who knows?) But its name alone is understandably enough to make turtle soup virgins cringe in horror.
As Anne noted and the name implies, the turtle soup I grew up on isn’t made of turtle meat. It’s kind of like a hot dog (if they were called hot not-real-dogs).
But, as the “mock” part of the name implies, turtle soup is a real dish with a weirdly extensive history.
Actual turtle soup (with actual turtle flesh) is a delicacy in China, where they use the skin and insides of soft-shelled turtles. Turtle soup has also been popular in the UK and various regions of the U.S. (though using real turtles was outlawed in many areas due to its dent in the hard-to-sustain turtle population). Cincinnati-born President William Howard Taft reportedly loved the stuff so much he brought in his own turtle soup chef when he moved into the White House.
Mock turtle soup popped up in the mid-1700s as a cheaper alternative to green turtle soup (it was popular enough to spawn the Mock Turtle character in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland). But if the idea of eating Yertle the Turtle in soup form makes you queasy, the original mock turtle soup’s recipe isn’t much more appetizing, consisting of things like calves’ heads, brains and organs.
Cincinnati has a big part in the mock turtle soup lore thanks to the Worthmore company, which started more than 90 years ago downtown. Originally a butcher’s shop, founder Phil Hock gave up on the meats after mock turtle soup sales took off. The company — which also makes a few other products, including a Cincinnati-style chili — has made canned mock turtle soup (once attempted unsuccessfully by Campbell’s) a familiar presence on Cincinnati grocery store shelves ever since. It’s been reported that in the early 1900s many area bars served free mock turtle soup alongside drinks.
The soup I grew up on doesn’t much resemble any of its predecessors, at least when it comes to the core ingredients. Instead of turtle meat or calf brains, Worthmore’s Mock Turtle Soup is made primarily with lean beef, hard-boiled eggs, ketchup and lemons (the original mock turtle soup did often use hard-boiled egg yolk and a little lemon zest).
Worthmore’s turtle soup has a visual resemblance to Cincinnati-style chili — and any other brown, thin, meat-based soup — but the flavor of mock turtle soup is pretty unique. The eggs and meat strings create a chewiness that borders on rubbery, while the ketchup gives it a tanginess that's further enhanced by the lemon (which also gives it a little sweetness).
I’m probably too close to say, but mock turtle soup likely is an acquired taste, one I acquired very early on in life. Given Worthmore’s ongoing success, it appears I’m not the only one.
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