“But I’m here to let you know
That I’ll love you like you deserve
I’ll treat you right
And on a cold, cold night
I’ll shower you in hugs & kisses
― Talia Basma, Being
It’s not soup season but here I am thinking about it anyway. Who am I kidding, any season is soup season. I won’t bore you with the triggers, what I call the Pig Trails and Rabbit Holes of my mind. But let’s talk soup…cooter soup and my grandmother.
On my morning walk, Quigley my “tripaw” Blue Heeler and I watched a huge snapper swim by, and it took me to bygone days. It took Quigley nowhere; he was busy rolling in the grass.
My memory was of a morning spent fishing and the memories the activity triggered. As I fished, an alligator snapping turtle paid a visit that day too, as did several Eastern water turtles. I’m sure they were looking for a free meal from a stringer that wasn’t there. I was fishing “catch and release” remembering the trials of cleaning fish. I remembered when cooters were food and harder to clean than fish.
We called the turtles cooters back in the day, from the West African word kuta. With a modern change in usage, I must be careful when using the name and ready for an explanation.
The snapper’s shell was as big as an old-fashioned Caddy hubcap. My grandmother spoke in my head, “Don’t let a cooter bite you ’cause it won’t let go till it thunders.” I answered back as I often do, “I don’t know about that Nannie, but I know he’ll take a finger off.”
There was a morning when, as a child in short britches, I hopped up on a rock and it began to walk off. I screamed at my Nannie. She, when seeing the object of my distress, with sack dress held up above her knees, ran off and came back with a butcher knife and a seventeen-gallon wash tub. I was about to be taught the intricacies of butchering and cooking a cooter.
In the present day, I made the mistake of casting near the turtle trying to scare him away. Big ‘uns like that don’t scare. Despite his size he was quick in the water. The old mossback submerged and took the worm and hung himself on the hook. I tried to keep him from heading to the bottom expecting him to break my line. The line didn’t break, instead he stripped the gears in my old reel and hunkered down on the bottom to wait me out. Looks like I’m in the market for another Zebco.
My grandmother would make cooter soup from the turtles she caught or those that happen to wander through her yard. During her day, Southern farmers survived the depression days preparing cooter soup, or catfish stew, or fried rabbit. She still made use of the free proteins that reminded her of the “worser days”, before and during the Great Depression. At least she stopped short of possum. She said it was too greasy. I’ll have to take her word that it is.
I understand turtle soup is now considered a delicacy. To my grandmother it was free meat from when times were hard. As I researched recipes, I saw a restaurant fare, Mike’s Bait Shop Turtle Stew…it looked better than its name might suggest. There are many different recipes, but I guess my grandmother’s version would be the best…just because.
I remember a big iron pot on an outdoor fire boiling water to dip the cooter in to loosen its shell and skin. It was a lot of work to crack open the shell and skin and bone the meat, being careful to remove the eggs and liver. Rich looking dark meat would be parboiled and ground like hamburger, sautéed with onion before being cooked like vegetable soup. Soup heavy with tomatoes, potatoes, corn, beans, and okra to thicken. Maybe celery or carrots thrown in for good measure. Basic “everything but the kitchen sink” soup with a twist. Everything harvested from her garden, sometimes even the turtle. The old cooter tasted like chicken with the consistency of beef…or was it the other way around?
I thought of this as I waited for the turtle to resurface. How long can a cooter stay down? Still waiting after a half hour, I tugged on the line and felt the load on the end move. Hand over hand I hoped the line wouldn’t cut me if he ran. He didn’t run and I pulled him close to the bank before taking out my MacGyver knife. I cut my line as close to the hook as I dared, fearing he might exact his revenge by taking a bite out of me and watched the old mossback disappear into deep water.
Walking back home in the midday heat, I carried no fish but there was a spring in my step as I thought the best life has to offer sometimes requires a lot of work…and provides sweet memories too. An evening in late summer came to my mind. Carrying two stringers of hand sized blue gills, near eighty total.
Two old women who were probably not as old as I imagined, in flour sack dresses and wide straw hats and a small boy sharing the load. Sitting out under the privet hedge and stars next to the garden cleaning them all. Nannie, her friend, Miss Maggie Cureton, and a young boy. Listening to them laugh and tell stories of the “worser days” that didn’t seem so bad. Enough fish for three families to feast on the next day.
A memory to feast on for life.
“Change is the salt in the soup of life.”
― Gyles Brandreth, Have You Eaten Grandma?
If you liked this reflection of bygone days, you might like “Pig Trails and Rabbit Holes.” It and all of Don Miller’s writings can be purchased in paperback or downloaded at