When you think of foods that are local to Philadelphia, seafood isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But marine life is quite abundant in the Delaware River and surrounding marshes and wetlands. During the 17th to 19th centuries, oysters, sturgeon roe, shad, terrapins and snapping turtles were all readily available at Philadelphia’s port and in local markets. But what makes Philadelphia food uniquely Philadelphian isn’t just what foods were already here, but what ingredients and culinary influences came here from around the world, some of which came through Philadelphia’s port.
“Philadelphia was the largest port city in America until about the 1830’s,” says Craig Bruns, Chief Curator at the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia. “You have to think of a port as the eye of a needle,” says Bruns. “Manufactured goods, culture, people, raw materials, and foodstuffs are all things that enter the port through ships and those ships go to the world, expanding their influence outward.” As a port city and important stop on global trade routes, Philadelphia had access to a world of ingredients – spices, fish, tropical fruit, sugar, alcohol, and other culinary commodities.
One of Philadelphia’s most notable dishes, one that illustrates the city’s symbiotic relationship between land and sea, is snapper soup. Turtle soups are prevalent around the world but locals throughout the region will be quick to tell you what makes the regional snapper soup stand out. It’s a rich, creamy, and silky soup made with hearty vegetables, pieces of snapper turtle meat, aromatic spices, and a dash of sherry, and it has a long history in the Delaware Valley.
The rise of turtle soup in Philadelphia
Early turtle soup recipes can be found throughout Europe, but by the 1750’s it became a wildly popular dish in Philadelphia. At the time, Philadelphians had a taste for green sea turtles which were caught in the Atlantic and brought to the port along with the spices and sherry that gave the soup its rich flavors. The massive turtles not only provided a lot of meat, they were quite a spectacle, coming in at anywhere between 50 to 300 pounds.
Green sea turtles were a statement, and their size and grandeur made turtle soup a popular dish for stately gatherings and monumental celebrations. John Adams wrote on several occasions in his diary about the turtle soups he enjoyed while visiting Philadelphia for the First Continental Congress. Adams is also said to have celebrated July 4, 1776 with a bowl of turtle soup. Turtle soup’s popularity even became the main focus of the Hoboken Turtle Club which was founded in 1796. The club brought together members over turtle soup and turtle steak dinners until the end of the 19th century.
Around the mid-19th century the high demand for sea turtles along with their declining population and rising cost made Philadelphians turn to other breeds of turtles. Looking for an affordable substitute, locals began relying on snapper turtles and terrapins from the local swamps and marshes. Though snapper turtle soups were around during the mid-19th century, diamondback terrapins were more desirable. According to NPR, diamondback terrapins were already part of Native American and enslaved African American diets. But it didn’t take long for these local turtles to become part of fine dining menus at expensive restaurants and private clubs.
This trend held steady until the 1920’s when Prohibition began. Restrictions on alcohol meant that fancy restaurants could no longer serve wine, cocktails, or beer. This not only impacted alcohol sales, it impacted dishes that were made with alcohol – terrapin soup which is commonly served with sherry was one of those dishes. Prohibition might not have been good for restaurants who used to serve terrapin soup, but it was good for the diamondback terrapins that were, according to NPR, nearly hunted to extinction.
Another substitute for green sea turtle was mock turtle soup, made with a whole calf’s head which was said to have a similar taste and texture to turtle meat. Because calf’s head was a cheaper cut of meat and the prices more stable than that of the fluctuating turtle market, it was a cheaper alternative during lean times in history. Though Abraham Lincoln enjoyed terrapin stew during his first inauguration, by his second inauguration during the Civil War, mock turtle soup was served instead.
Thanks to advances in technology that allowed for the mass production, canning, and distribution of food, mock turtle soup appeared on most American dinner tables. Companies like Bookbinders in Philadelphia and the Campbell’s Soup Company across the Delaware River in Camden, New Jersey sold their own canned versions of mock turtle soup. By the turn of the 20th Century, mock turtle soup was so commonplace in American cuisine it was a dish served in the home as well as a staple on fine dining menus like at New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria and St. Regis Hotel.
Snapper Soup Today
Nowadays not too many people are having mock turtle soup, and snapper turtles are being used in place of green sea turtles and diamondback terrapins. And instead of being a meal reserved for the wealthy, it’s a hearty comforting soup that’s more accessible to the average diner. Though the recipe has slightly changed over the centuries, chefs who serve it are proud to be carrying on the local tradition.
“I want to share these stories as much as I can because we have to keep traditions like this alive,” says Andrew Abruzzese, owner of Pineville Tavern in Bucks County, about an hour north of Philadelphia. “We’re the caretakers of this place. It is the quintessential hospitality business. It’s always been known as a working man’s bar in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Pennsylvania.”
The Pineville Tavern dates back to 1742 when it served as a stagecoach stop for people traveling back and forth between Philadelphia and New York City, particularly during the Second Continental Congress. “This wasn’t where the guests stayed,” says Abruzzese. “This is where the stagecoach drivers would stay and take care of the horses overnight.”
When Abruzzese purchased the Pineville Tavern on January 11, 1989, they needed to do a lot of work. “It had a short order kitchen – just a fryer and griddle,” says Abruzzese. “It was a modest place in a beautiful location.” They started off small selling chili, spaghetti and meatballs, and hunters stew until they could install a full kitchen. By November 1989, when they installed a commercial kitchen, one of the first things Pineville chef, Roger Bonner, did was buy a couple of snapper turtles to make a batch of snapper soup.
“Snapper soup is different almost everywhere you order it,” says Abruzzese. “Our style is a little more rustic and closer to the original Philadelphia-style.” Bonner’s snapper soup recipe, which is the recipe Pineville still uses today, was inspired by his time working as the banquet chef of the Warwick Hotel in Philadelphia. It was a dish that Bonner had a particular talent for, and was a popular one among Warwick Hotel patrons, including the hotel owner who was said to have requested snapper soup from chef Bonner pretty regularly. From the first day Bonner cooked up Pineville Tavern’s first batch of snapper soup it was a hit, so much so that the infamous soup earned the tavern a spot on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.
The soup begins with cooking the turtle with a mirepoix in a broth of tea and water. “It’s an arduous undertaking,” says Abruzzese. “The turtle looks prehistoric when you’re cooking it up. And when it comes out, you pick the turtle meat out. It’s a hard job but we get it done.”
The pieces of turtle meat in Pineville Tavern’s snapper soup are a bit larger than other snapper soups. “Some grind the turtle meat after it’s cooked and some add hard boiled eggs to make it meatier,” says Abruzzese, “we don’t do that. We pick the meat off into bite sized pieces.” With the turtle meat set aside it’s time to mix the rest of the ingredients for the soup together – mirepoix, butter, flour, stock, tomato juice, dry sherry, Worchestire sauce, kitchen bouquet, and a unique blend of turtle spices including nutmeg, cinnamon, cayenne pepper as well as others. Once the ingredients have been brought together, the turtle meat is added and gently stirred so as not to break up the meat. After another round of simmering the snapper soup is ready to serve.
Another notable difference between Pineville’s snapper soup and others is its thickness. “It’s a thicker consistency than some,” says Abruzzese. “It’s not as thick as beef gravy although it’s not far from that.”
The soup is served with a little bottle of dry sherry, a customary addition to the culinary tradition. Though some, like Abruzzese, enjoy their snapper soup as is without the sherry, some like it for its added flavor and silky texture. “Sherry sweetens it up and thins it down a little bit and it’s just part of tradition,” says Abruzzese.
Today, Matthew Levin is preparing to take over the helm of Pineville’s kitchen, coming to the tavern with years of culinary experience working under George Perrier at Philadelphia’s Le Bec-Fin and Craig Shelton at The Ryland Inn. Levin plans to update some of the menu, adding more contemporary takes on Pineville classics that will revolve with the seasons. But there are other dishes, including the snapper soup, that he wants to keep as original as possible. “It’s been over 30 years that the snapper soup has been on the menu,” says Levin, “so it’s not about changing it so much as it is about bringing it back to the original.” Recently, Levin has been carefully studying the old recipe that chef Bonner typed up back in 1989.
To say Pineville’s snapper soup is hearty is an understatement. Every spoonful gives me a deeper understanding of what the phrase “stick to your ribs” means. Everything blends together in a thick brown broth that’s richly flavored with the turtle spices – the cinnamon and nutmeg come through beautifully, adding depth and a sweetness that plays well with the dry sherry. Immersed in the broth, hulking pieces of gamey turtle meat gives the snapper soup a rustic feel. It is certainly a dish that is the epitome of Philadelphia’s historic port city where the land meets the sea.