RIDDLES MYSTERIES ENIGMAS: FINEST HOUR 146, SPRING 2010
On Turtles and Turtle Soup
Q: I’ve often heard it said that Churchill enjoyed turtle soup and turtle meat. Is there any evidence of this? Did Churchill in any of his writings ever mention this, or did any contemporaries refer to his supposed liking of it?
A: Churchill was fond of turtle soup, and probably picked up the taste as First Lord of the Admiralty during the Great War. According to several sources, when the Royal Navy was watching Napoleon in exile at St. Helena, nearby Ascension Island was replete with turtles, and British warships returning home would bring turtles with them. Though the custom had lapsed by 1940, Churchill was keen to revive it.
In his account of the Atlantic Charter meeting with Roosevelt (Atlantic Meeting), H.V. Morton wrote that Churchill, wanted to serve turtle soup to the President. Miraculously, his naval aide, Commander Thompson, found bottles of turtle soup in a Piccadilly shop and, finding that neither coupons nor ration books were required, bought the lot and took it in triumph back No. 10.
In describing Churchill’s December 1944 flight to Greece in the Official Biography, Volume VII, Sir Martin Gilbert quotes Pierson Dixon, from the Foreign Office, who recalled a dinner of “turtle soup, ham sandwiches and whisky.”
Jack Fishman, in My Darling Clementine, described a dinner for WSC on 31 October 1950, where 275 Conservative politicians celebrated the 50th anniversary of WSC’s election to Parliament: “Each course traced his Parliamentary life….Sherries, turtle soup, and appetizers were named after two of his constituencies.” (Could one have been “Turtle Soup Manchester North West”?)
Finally, there’s this: In selecting dinner menus for the Churchill Conference at Williamsburg, Virginia in 1988, we learned that WSC, during his visit in 1946, had requested not turtle soup but turtle itself—specifically Maryland Diamondback Terrapin.
Colonial Williamsburg’s archivist showed us a letter so extraordinary that our then-executive director, Parker Lee, kept a copy, which he has now forwarded to us. It is necessary to edit from the following excerpt a word that is banned from civilized speech, but since the writer was a southerner, readers may perhaps guess.
From: John N. Mackall, Vice-President, Davison Chemical Corp., Baltimore. To: John D. Green, General Manager, Williamsburg Restoration Inc., 11 March 1946 (excerpt)….
“Dear Mr. Green:
“Charlie Gillet called me to say that you were having a dinner for Mr. Churchill, and that he had expressed a desire to have Maryland Diamondback Terrapin. He and I both agreed that the world’s first citizen should have the world’s first food if available, and that it could easily be made available.
“Perhaps you do not know too much of the Maryland Diamondback Terrapin. The same Diamondback appears in North Carolina, Georgia and Florida. The North Carolina Diamondbacks, called ‘sliders,’ are only fit to feed to [deleted], and the Georgia and Florida Diamondbacks are only fit to feed to pigs. The difference is in the food they eat.
“The Maryland Diamondback, in its initial stages, lives exclusively on a diet of little soft shell crabs. They ought to be good…but commerce entered into it and began to raise them in captivity, and later from eggs, so that their exclusive diet was crab shells and dead crabs. Of course the worst Maryland Diamondbacks are better than the North Carolina or Georgia or Florida Diamondbacks, but they are still not first class.
“There are relatively few people in Maryland who, in the raw state, know the difference between a wild Diamondback freshly caught, one fed in captivity, or one raised from eggs. Charlie Gillet and I know the difference, so when Mr. Churchill wanted terrapin we were confronted with finding wild Diamondback that had never in their lives eaten anything but little soft shell crabs. We know most of the people who have them, and it was a simple matter to have enough sent up.
“I had heard that when Mr. Churchill visited Maryland for a couple of weeks when he was studying the battlefields of the Civil War, he had eaten Maryland Diamondback Terrapin, and that he would be satisfied with none but the best. Indeed any man who can drink warm Vermouth before breakfast, as I hear Mr. Churchill does, ought to have something to compensate for it. Maryland Diamond Back seemed to be just what he needed, and it was a pleasure to get it or him and for you.”
Editor’s Note: The Diamondback (Malaclemys terrapin) is native to coastal swamps of eastern and southern United States, ranging from Cape Sable, Florida to Massachusetts. After World War II it was hunted almost to extinction, and although not on the U.S. Endangered Species List it is considered threatened or endangered by the states of Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, Massachusetts, North Carolina,Rhode Island and Virginia. It is the state reptile of Maryland and mascot of the University of Maryland.
On the Admiralty yacht Enchantress during his first sojourn as First Lord (1911-15), Churchill, an animal lover, once took pity on turtles being held for soup and ordered their release. It seems likely that he would refrain from dining on terrapin today!
Get the Churchill Bulletin delivered to your inbox once a month.