From the vault: Terrapin, the forgotten Maryland delicacy

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Trigger warning, Terps fans.

Today, the terrapin is known for being the mascot of the University of Maryland. But there was a time when the diamondback was the signature delicacy of Maryland cuisine. Today one might wear a Rolex; in the “Gay Nineties” of the 1890s, you’d be eating turtle. Hoity toity residents of Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood even designed special pools in their basements to keep terrapin before they were ready for the chopping block. It was said that the great French General Marquis de Lafayette returned to the United States after the American Revolution mainly so he could try the dish again.

Well, OK.

(Ironically, the same way lobster was once considered garbage food and served only to prisoners, the elite dish was originally restricted as food for slaves in the Tidewater region. But tastes change.)

By the 1900s, terps had been fished near to the point of extinction several times, and quotas had to be placed on their capture. Their prices reflect their scarce supply: in 1899, a dozen six-inch terrapin could cost up to $45.

Recipes called for the poor things to be boiled live like lobster, then served with copious amounts of butter as well as sherry or dry madeira.

“The sherry helped cut the weird taste,” says Sun columnist Jacques Kelly, who tried terrapin at an event at the Maryland Club – once considered “the very shrine of terrapin-eating,” according to a 1952 article in The Sun. “The taste was kind of a marshy woodland – you couldn’t help but think of a turtle when you ate it.”

What’s more, it had a weird gummy, slimy texture – but not a pleasant one. “A lot of people tried it once,” Kelly said, “but for every one who tried it, probably only one in 50 actually went back and loved it to have more.”

Terrapin eating seems to have dropped off during the Great Depression — though it was still on the menu at selected restaurants like the Maryland Club until fairly recently. There were rumors the expensive tortoise might make a comeback in gourmet restaurants in the 1950s, but that seems to have never materialized. A major factor was price: in 1952, they were selling at $18 for a dozen six-inch terrapin, which may be a steal compared to those 1899 prices, but is still a lot of money to pay for something that tastes like “marshy woodland.”

The Maryland Club says they no longer serve diamondback, and you won’t see it on menus in Baltimore restaurants anytime soon. For one thing, terrapin fishing is illegal, and the last remaining commercial terrapin fishery closed in 2007.

“I feel like there’s a stigma against turtles – serving turtles on a menu,” says Jordie Miller, 28, the kitchen manager at the Local Oyster in Mount Vernon Marketplace, which serves sustainably sourced meats and seafood.

“It’s kind of like sharfkin soup. You don’t see that around anymore now that everyone’s hip to environmental issues.”