Author’s note: Thanks to Randy Hancock of Nashville, Georgia for an assist with this column.
A few weeks ago, my youngster-at-heart dad decided that he wanted to apprehend a quantity of snapping turtles. Whether it was for entertainment, adventure or just plain old lust for some turtle mull, I cannot say for sure, but nonetheless he was highly successful in his quest and that’s where today’s saga begins.
For the scientific minded the greater snapping turtle (Latin name biteus fastust) is an animal that might best be described as one with a fierce and belligerent attitude, powerful jaws, a highly mobile head and neck, and a quickness of strike that would make an NBA point guard jealous. To further enhance the peril, snapping turtles have sharp claws. It’s not like the turtle won’t warn you – they will emit an evil sounding hiss when agitated and that basically means to proceed with extreme caution.
This prehistoric looking beast can live to be nearly a half century old and is particularly ornery as he reaches his dotage. Snapping turtles can grow to be upwards of fifty or sixty pounds, but are typically measured by the size of their shells. Daddy’s prize specimen, in this latest batch, was about the size of a radial tire.
There are also a few relevant tips to remember about the early portion of this process. When transporting the collection of turtles from the basket in the lake to the back of the truck take care that you shake the reptiles down to the bottom of the basket. The creatures will be in a fairly grumpy mood and will injure your hand if it is positioned improperly. Also, keep a close watch on the group after you dump them out of the basket into the truck bed. One of daddy’s collection climbed out after he got home and went on a rampage. He slew a cat, an unsuspecting domesticated rabbit, and a small beagle before escaping back into the pond behind the house. I told you, these old boys are bad to the bone.
All that translates roughly into this piece of advice: Be exceedingly careful when the time comes to prepare the loggerhead for butchering. Most people don’t know bear crap from fancy candy when it comes to this part of the proceedings (including myself). If you are an amateur in this area of cuisine preparation, I would further advise that you stand down and don’t let your testosterone level overrun your judgment.
First, someone has to get the snapper out of the truck bed and onto the ground in the back yard, which is no small feat in itself. Grabbing him by the tail would seem to make the most sense but don’t forget that in the aforementioned description that the turtle has a highly mobile head and neck. For the less educated that means that he’ll swell up and bite you even from that position.
Those who actually know how to handle the ensuing steps in this delicate activity have to start off with the most important and dangerous one: How to dispatch the cantankerous creature without suffering bodily injury and/or digit amputation. The most common method is by decapitation, but that in itself is problematic. How do you get him to stick his head out for the fatal blow? Getting him to grab hold of a stick (preferably a long one) and hanging on to it while one person pulls on it is an acceptable method, but do be careful. There have been reports that the person with the axe became over-excited and missed badly while trying to deal the death blow thereby putting innocent by-standers at risk.
If you are lucky enough to accomplish this most hazardous step without incident you still have to figure out how to get the meat out of the shell. Although less perilous, it is still a job for a very sharp knife and a skilled, patient butcher.
The flesh that is gleaned from this multi-step process can ultimately be used for several purposes. One can turn this into turtle mull, turtle stew, fried turtle or as an additive in Brunswick stew. Some of it can also be turned into a piquante’ sauce much like the alligator sauce used in southern Louisiana. It consists of a tomato base, roux, and Cajun seasoning and makes a chocolate brown mixture that can be served over chunks of turtle flesh. Umm good.
The moral of today’s fully truthful story is simply this: If you decide to get you up a mess of snapping turtles to eat make sure you have someone experienced in the art of cleaning them to help you. Otherwise, find some idiot who has never done it before but has a high opinion of their ability to clean any wild game. Do not—under any circumstances—try to do it yourself.
I hope that you will soon enjoy some tasty turtle meat slathered in yummy picquante’ sauce and be able to relish it with all your body parts still intact.
(E-mail your game-cleaning tips to firstname.lastname@example.org)