Sunday, July 20, 2008

On Buying "Sea Food" From Hucksters, and Mrs. Habersham's Terrapin Stew

The Savannah Cook Book aims to make its readers feel like they could be locals. As we saw yesterday, one of the techniques for that is "get 'em drunk, hard and fast," which will actually be quite a theme in the upcoming weeks. (Where there are punch recipes, I will bring them to you.) Other tips come in methods of service, and in sourcing ingredients. Our excerpt today comes from the start of the "Sea Food" section (linguistic squee: it's two separate words at this point, not "seafood" as we'd see it today):
Although the fish stalls in the City market are filled with crabs and shrimp brought in fresh daily, the majority of Savannah housekeepers prefer to buy their see foods from the negro hucksters who come in from the neighboring watering places, and peddle their wares from door to door--carrying on their heads great baskets of shrimp and crabs and oysters, and filling the morning air with their familiar cry:

"Craby by'er! Yeh Swimps! Yeh Oshta!"

Many efforts have been made by the City fathers to put an end to this street peddling, and many righteous and sanitary-minded officials have stepped in and enfolded the poor hucksters in such a maze of up-to-date methods for icing and standardizing their wares, that the poor things have not known what it was all about. But the plea of the housewife has carried the day, and the presence of the gayly dressed vendors with their buckets of oysters, their baskets of bright shrimp and crabs, and in the spring with swamp lilies, wild honeysuckle and bay flowers, still lends a picturesque touch to streets that are fast losing their charm in the march of progress.

When you plan a crab or shrimp menu for your party, however, it is always just as well to have a reserve dish or two up your sleeve, since the weather man has to be reckoned with, and crabs and shrimp and hucksters are all rather temperamental, and may be conspicuous by their absence on the great day, if the wind comes out from the wrong direction or nature has frowned in some other unforeseen fashion.

Golly. So much to mull over there. I think I'll stick with pondering over the phrase "neighboring watering places." From my perspective, a "watering place" is not a place one fishes, but rather, where one drinks. Is there a meaning shift going on, over time and distance, or... well, was Ms. Colquitt making a not-so-sly reference to the "negro hucksters" coming only when they were done drinking? It's not for nothing that she lists the hucksters after the crab and shrimp when talking about how temperamental (and hence, unreliable) they are.

And I'll admit having a secondary squee to seeing "sea foods." Also, ongoing problems accurately transcribing the placement of commas from the original.

I thought after that excerpt, I should include a shrimp, crab, or oyster recipe, but those included in this book are... basic? They assume that you already know what you're doing, so don't go into detail. There aren't even ingredient lists, which can be interesting in and of itself, but isn't as fun as this little gem:

Mrs. Habersham's Terrapin Stew

3 large terrapin, boiled and picked
6 hard boiled eggs
3 heaping tablespoons flour
1/2 grated nutmeg
1 onion
1/2 pound best butter
juice and rind 1 lemon
1 pint sweet cream
1 tumbler good wine, or 1/2 pint sherry
red pepper -- salt -- 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

Rub yolks of eggs and butter and flour together. Put on jelly or stock to cook, and as soon as it boils, add egg mixture, also lemon and nutmeg. Then put in terrapin eggs and meat, and last of all, the cream and wine, and be careful not to let curdle or burn. Add chopped whites of eggs. Always have enough hot milk to thin out if it is too thick.

But to prepare the terrapin before making the soup is another story. In case you have to do it yourself -- here is the approved method. Cut off heads, dip in boiling water for a short time, and carefully pull of outer skin from feet, and all that will come off the back. With a sharp hatchet cut open the terrapin, and take out the eggs, and put aside in cold water. Throw away entrails and gall bags, saving the livers which are very much liked. Leave all the legs on the back and put on to boil. Put into about three pints of water, with salt and onion, and let simmer and steam (not boil) about forty-five minutes. When tender take meat from back, and remove bones. Cook meat a little more if not tender enough. Cut up meat -- across the grain to prevent stringing -- and set stock aside to jelly. Then forget it for a few hours (if you can) and when the party is imminent, proceed as above.
I've never considered a hatchet a vital kitchen implement. Heck, I've never eaten terrapin, green turtle, or any other such creature. I've never had turtle soup, mock or otherwise. But this gives me heaps of respect for how it comes about.

Note that it is, in fact, half of a nutmeg, not 1/2 of some measure of nutmeg. Half a nutmeg. Go to town.

A tumbler is a measure used often throughout The Savannah Cook Book. I think we're safe in seeing it as 8 oz., though I'm not quite sure why the wine is measured in tumblerfuls and the sherry in pints.

Later on in the book, it will be assumed that you will have "colored men" around to assist guests in opening their roasted oysters. Here? The reader is expected to be able to dispatch terrapin -- I think the first is nostalgic longing and class pretension showing through, and the second is more aware of the then-current times (Great Depression, whee).

Also later in the book, Ms. Colquitt strenuously points out that there is a difference between terrapin stew and stewed terrapin. If anyone finds herself with a surfeit of terrapin, and wants to have the recipe for stewed terrapin to go along with this one, drop a comment and I'll oblige. There's also a recipe for Biscuits To Go With Terrapin Stew, which is frightfully proud for containing no baking powder whatsoever.


  1. Oh, you must post the biscuit recipe. And one of the ones without ingredients lists.

  2. Several of the recipes I'll post this week lack "proper" ingredient lists; and, just for you, Doctor Science, I'll post the biscuit recipe in a bonus post later this week!

  3. The easiest way to dispatch a terrapin is to let it get run over by Cal on Sept. 13 up in College Park. Go Bears!!

    (yes, flagrantly kissing up to the wife. They're her season tickets after all.)