You’ve probably heard of Mock Turtles from reading Alice in Wonderland, but it turns out it’s actually a real dish.
Alice in Wonderland
Written by: Lewis Carroll, real name Charles Dodgson (Oxford mathematician; friend of the Liddell family whose daughter, Alice, inspired the story)
I got my first copy of Alice in Wonderland when I was 10. Everyone knows Alice in Wonderland – it’s constantly referenced in shows and other books, not to mention the Disney movie I was forced to watch multiple times. When I first attempted to read it, I thought it’d be straightforward – but Dodgson loves having a dizzying array of characters pop in and out for the sake of reciting a poem or executing some lame pun.
Not to mention, many of the popular references of Lewis Carroll are often lost on the modern reader. In this scene (which was cut from the Disney movie adaptation), Alice goes to visit the Mock Turtle (a turtle with the head, tail, and hooves of a calf) with the Gryphon and they dance to the Lobster Quadrille. Alice recites “‘Tis the Voice of the Lobster”, which was a parody of a well known poem in Dodgson’s time, “The Sluggard”.
So what exactly is a mock turtle?
Then the Queen left off, quite out of breath, and said to Alice, “Have you seen the Mock Turtle yet?”
“No,” said Alice. “I don’t even know what a Mock Turtle is.”
“It’s the thing Mock Turtle Soup is made from,” said the Queen.
– Alice in Wonderland, Chapter 9
But not actually.
Mock Turtle Soup
Like how the popular poem “The Sluggard” is no longer recognizable by modern readers, mock turtle soup was once very well-known during the Victorian era. Real turtle soup (made of snapping turtles or green turtles) was outlawed in the mid 19th century due to the endangerment of animals, so a substitute for turtle meat was created, made out of brains and organ meats, like calf’s head and hooves and oxtail. The illustration of the Mock Turtle in Alice in Wonderland is actually a pun of that – a turtle’s body attached with the repurposed imitations of its meat.
Mock turtle soup used to be so popular – Andy Warhol mentioned it was one of his favorite Campbell soups and President Taft had a chef brought into the White House specifically to make turtle soup. Unfortunately, it shortly stopped being popular in the 20th century and now nobody wants Mad Cow disease, so…
I found out about real mock turtle soup through Historic Heston and it was one of the first historic dishes I wanted to cook. Despite all my childhood hatred of Lewis Carroll, it’s exciting when you discover the meaning behind what you previously thought was bizarre nonsense (like figuring out that you have to close the shower curtain before you turn on the spout?? or figuring out why asking ‘How are you?’ is necessary to make people feel comfortable in conversations even if you don’t actually care how they are??). I even reread the book in preparation for this recipe to get that nostalgia.
Unfortunately, Heston Blumenthal is a world class chef and his recipes allow for the leisure of creating ketchup from scratch and using 5 different types of lard. I decided to go with a simpler recipe here —
Brown the onions in butter and add the meat and spices.
For this recipe, we used oxtail as I don’t want a Turtle Chainsaw Massacre on my hands or Mad Cow Disease in my brain…
Stir in the flour until it bubbles, adding more butter as necessary. Pour in the hot water and chicken stock and bring to a boil.
Add the tomatoes and chopped lemon, including the rind. Simmer for two hours (I put it in the slow cooker).
After simmering for a while, remove the oxtail so you can cut the bone off. Add the meat back to the soup and discard the bones.
When ready to serve, chop the eggs coarsely and stir into the soup. Stir a teaspoon of sherry into each bowl and top with parsley. And sure, why not? Have some sherry on the side too.
Verdict: I don’t know what real turtles taste like, but for some regular beef soup, this is pretty good and filling! The meat gets tender from simmering (for those of you without teeth) and the sherry is a good pairing with the lemon and chunks of egg. Cutting it from the bone of the oxtail was a pain, so if you don’t want to stick to historical accuracy, just use beef stew meat.
I would rate this 3.5 endangered turtle poltergeists out of 5.
Time: 3.5 hours
Serves: 4 – 6
1 large onion
1 tbsp of butter (to cook onions in) and 2 tbsp
2 lbs of meaty oxtails (or 1 lb of beef stew meat if you don’t like bone)
1 garlic clove, minced
3 whole cloves
¼ tsp of thyme
1 bay leaf
¼ tsp of allspice
1 tbsp flour
3 cups hot water
3 cups chicken stock
Salt & pepper as needed
1 cup of chopped and peeled tomatoes
½ thin-skinned lemon, chopped into slices, including rind
2 hard boiled eggs, chopped coarsely
1 tbsp of fresh parsley
Let’s Make This!
- Brown onion in 1 tbsp of butter in a large pan. Add oxtails and brown slightly.
- Add garlic clove, cloves, thyme, bay leaf, and allspice to the pan and stir in the flour until it bubbles. Add up to 2 tbsp of butter if needed.
- Pour in hot water and stock and bring to a boil.
- Add salt and pepper to taste, tomatoes, and lemon (including rind).
- Simmer on low heat for 2 hours (on stove or slow cooker).
- Remove the oxtail and cut the bone away. Discard the bones and add the meat back to the soup. Simmer for another half an hour.
- When ready to serve, stir the chopped eggs into the mixture. Add a teaspoon of sherry to each bowl and top with fresh parsley. And then INSTAGRAM THAT SHIT #foodtimemachine
Sources: Soupsong’s version of Mock Turtle Soup; lots of Wikipedia; Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll; and for those who want to try the fancier modern version by Heston Blumenthal, Historic Heston