Mock Turtle Soup- An Exceedingly Brief History

As we’re on the subject of soups with un-appetizing names, I have been asked to explain Mock Turtle Soup.  Sadly, unlike our previous entry regarding Turkey Neck Soup, the news ain’t so good.

Mock Turtle Soup is, however, also pretty much exactly what it says. At least insofar as it is a “mock” version of actual turtle soup. Turtle soup was a food fad of the British Victorian age.  Whilst the British are generally considered to be a culinarily unadventurous people, the burdgeoning growth of their empire during the Victorian age proves this to be largely untrue.  Colonial incursions into what was then referred to as The Orient opened up whole new flavour-related vistas for the British, and new tastes and sensations were much in demand, particularly amongst the Upper Classes, and their equally moneyed but less socially advantageous classes. It was they who turned what might have been a passing fancy amongst nobility into heavily publicised menus and de rigeur dinner party staples.

So from “The Orient” came Turtle Soup, which, as you might have by now inferred, was made from actual turtles.  The sheer exoticity of the dish- combined with the scarcity of its essential ingredient on these shores- made it a status symbol at dinner parties across the land. However, the sheer price of said essential imported ingredient rendered it basically impossible for all but the most moneyed to produce the soup at dinner parties and therefore impress any guests.

Thus was born the Mock Turtle Soup. Cooks were instructed to emulate the soup as much as possible, and for the newly emerging Middle Classes a signature dish was born.  This soup did not of course use actual turtle but was based in beef stock that was given a somewhat fishy edge with added, well, fish.  Interestingly, it is one of the status dishes of the Victorian Age that has not stood the test of time.  Not only because  the necessary turtles (Snapping, just so you know) are a protected species across most of the world except for somewhere in North Carolina where they are farmed, but really because our idea of what tastes good has just changed that much. The famously brave and experimental British chef Heston Blumenthal attempted to re-create the recipe for a recent TV show (“Heston’s Victorian Feast”), and even he found it totally unpalatable.

So Mock Turtle Soup has, historically and culinarily speaking, gone the way of the dodo, and is probably best remembered in the works of Lewis Carroll.  The Mock Turtle that features in the various adventures of Alice in Wonderland is a direct, and doubtlessly satirical, reference to the soup from which it got its name.

Again, I can offer no recipes here.  But this time it’s because I just flatly refuse to.  Adventurous in the food world I may be, but there are lines that even I will not cross.

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