Cooter, or turtle, soups are of three kinds: a rich turtle stock thickened with roux, a clear broth filled with floating pieces of the white flesh, and a thick chowder enriched with cream, wine, and eggs. All three follow the West Indian model, popular long before Carolina was settled, with hot pepper as seasoning. Cooter is from a West African word, kuta, for turtle. Recipes for turtle soup mean sea turtles. In the late 18th century Charleston’s Henry Laurens sent sea turtles kept alive on purslane to clients in London. Purslane, or portulaca, is a common low-lying succulent that is indigenous to the Lowcountry. It was widely used in salads during the time but is as seldom seen today on the Lowcountry table as these soups.

The terrapin is the turtle of our brackish waters. Sometimes called diamondback, it is the most common turtle found in soups. Farther inland, above the saltwater line, chicken turtles, sliders, and snappers are all prized for their flavor by river folk. No matter which species is used, the female full of eggs is preferred for soups. The following soup is from Orangeburg’s Choice Recipes of 1948. Though Orangeburg, 70 miles inland, was never rice-growing country, it sits on the edge of one of the largest virgin cypress swamps in the world. A few people still grow small plots of rice for personal consumption in the low-lying corners of fields that abut those swamps. The lack of red pepper is geographical: away from the African influence of the coastal plantations, the Sandlapper palate is never as fiery.

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Method

Select a large, live, female terrapin—the rice fields variety being the best. Cut off head and remove shell. Dress by removing skin, intestines, and sand bag. Cut meat into cubes and place together with the eggs from the terrapin into a large pot. Add four quarts of water and bring to a boil. While slowly boiling, add two tablespoons salt, one-fourth pound of cubed salt meat and two tablespoons of whole allspice. Cook slowly for two hours. Just before serving, add one tablespoon black pepper, two tablespoons butter, one cup cream and one-half cup sherry wine. Thicken with two tablespoons browned flour. Strain and serve soup clear. Place one thin slice of lemon and one teaspoon sherry wine in each soup plate.

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