Shore's turtle soup has many folks snapping it up


September 29, 1993|By ROB KASPER

A good snapper soup is hard to find. Woodrow Wilson Handley -- or Woody, as everyone who has tasted his dark, delicious soup calls him -- makes an exceptional turtle soup.

Fans of the soup, which is made from the meat of snapping turtles and is called both snapper and turtle soup, find their way to Woody's Inn in Rosedale for a bowl. Or maybe two bowls. Guys like Thomas J. Rostkowski, who works in Cockeysville as assistant business manager for Local 1501 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and who has been going to Woody's for the soup for 30 years. And Mark Allen, an executive at the Trahan, Burden & Charles advertising and public relations agency in downtown Baltimore who has been sipping Woody's snapper soup for 19 years.

Both men praise the soup as a Maryland treasure. Rostkowski tells of a union organizer he knew, an extensive traveler who kept a notebook of what he regarded as the best restaurant dishes in the United States. After tasting the soup at Woody's, Rostkowski said, the man opened his notebook and changed his turtle soup rankings. He erased the Original Bookbinder's restaurant in Philadelphia and replaced it with Woody's on Baltimore's Pulaski Highway.

Allen, who is a colonel in the Maryland Air National Guard, says that before flying out of Martin State Airport to some distant land, he and a few fellow guardsmen often swing by Woody's to fuel up on turtle soup. Turtle soup, he said, gives you stamina.

Woody, a modest man who will turn 81 tomorrow, simply says the soup is "some kind of good." Following an old recipe he got on the Eastern Shore, Woody makes the labor-intensive liquid himself.

"From the time you start to the time you finish takes 24 hours," he said the other day at his restaurant, after Rostkowski, Allen and I had polished off several bowls of Woody's soup and a couple of his barbecued pork sandwiches.

Without divulging secrets, Woody explained the soup-making process. He told how he washed each snapping turtle by hand, boiled them in water, removed the shells, pulled out the choice meat and eggs, and cooked the liquid for hours, adding a few select seasonings.

He also said he works solo, as few folks want to be near the kitchen when the 200 pounds of turtle show up. Another reason Woody said he works alone is because the turtle recipe is a secret. "It is only in my head," he said, gesturing toward his round, bald pate.

Some of the success of the soup, he said, could be traced to the turtles, which, like him, hail from the Eastern Shore. The marshes of the Shore, he said, are ideal turtle country, adding that "over on the Shore, they are sometimes called 'turkels.' "

Woody grew up near Cambridge on a family farm, near what is now the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. Sitting back in his chair, Woody told how the soup recipe was passed to him some 30 years ago by an Eastern Shore cook, the late Thomas Gibbs.

One day, stopping at the Tidewater Inn in Easton, Woody ordered a bowl of turtle soup. "I couldn't get over that soup. It was some kind of good," he recalled. He was so impressed with the soup that he introduced himself to its maker, Mr. Gibbs. Woody said that later Mr. Gibbs went into business for himself, setting up a seafood stand on a stretch of Route 50 between Easton and Trappe called the "hole in the wall." Woody, who by then had begun operating his Baltimore restaurant, kept on the trail of that soup. Whenever he traveled to the Eastern Shore, he stopped at Mr. Gibbs' seafood stand and had some turtle soup.

Woody said he and Mr. Gibbs struck up a friendship, and shortly before Mr. Gibbs died he presented the recipe for the turtle soup. Since then, Woody said, he has been making turtle soup in 75-gallon batches, freezing some and selling the rest, from $4.25 a bowl to $45 a gallon.

Yesterday I heard of another snapper soup. Raymond Copper, executive chef at the Tidewater Inn, said the snapper soup he has been making for 30 years is a variation of Mr. Gibb's recipe. Mr. Copper said he uses Eastern Shore turtles, but adds slightly different herbs. The Tidewater Inn snapper soup, which sells from $5.50 a bowl to $44 a gallon, has its fans, too. Some hunters once had 4 gallons shipped to Seattle, Mr. Copper said.

Which proves, I guess, that once folks get a taste of soup made from Maryland snapping turtles, they'll go to great lengths to get more.

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