These terrapins aren't so popular

No one's jumping through any hoops to get them on menu

March 26, 2003|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

Whatever terrapins you fancy, March emerges as an eventful month.

Even if the NCAA tournament fails to fulfill the ambitions of coach Gary Williams & Co., remotely related doings unfold in Maryland's marshes and muddy tidal bottoms, where the college basketball team's namesake begins now to stir from its winter's sleep, emerging into a world that has mostly settled into benevolent indifference.

It is, after all, good news for diamondback terrapins that they have fallen out of fashion - in a culinary sense, anyway. Whatever anxieties may grip the University of Maryland Terrapins, today's turtles can probably step out with more confidence than their ancestors.

Decades have passed since terrapin heyday, when a number of Baltimore restaurants offered a rich, brown, broth soup prepared with butter and madeira or sherry. As much a Maryland signature as crab cakes or rockfish, terrapin has not stood the same test of time, much to the satisfaction of those who admire the animal for reasons other than taste.

"As turtle enthusiasts have always known, it's just a magnificent creature," says Marguerite Whilden, who directs a fisheries conservation program under the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The terrapin - with its sweet face and splendid shell - has been adopted as a kind of ambassador for the program.

Whilden hasn't had the soup, but she does at the moment have about 60 diamondbacks penned up at an environmental center on the Eastern Shore, waiting to be tagged and returned to the shores whence they came. It's part of an effort to track the species' fortunes. No easy task there, says Whilden, who when asked for an assessment of the diamondback population's general health, replies: "unknown."

It seems they're doing better than they were in the day when some of the bigger hotels in Baltimore would keep their own terrapin pens in the basement for entirely different purposes: the better to have a good supply on hand to meet customer demand.

Declared Maryland's state reptile in 1994, the terrapin was the object of such desire in the 19th century that the state was moved to adopt a law in 1878 creating a five-month terrapin season and establishing a 5-inch minimum for legal size. This effort notwithstanding, terrapin populations continued to dwindle. It's been reported that by the 1930s, veteran watermen were saying they might take a week to catch one diamondback.

Terrapin season now runs from August through April with a 6-inch legal minimum. The diamondback grows to about 8 inches and most are 4 or 5 pounds. Left to their own, they're believed to live up to 50 years.

The species was never listed as "threatened" or "endangered," and if it has in fact rebounded it would seem to have benefited from a combination of factors having little to do with government protection. It's been said that Prohibition put a crimp in demand, as sherry or madeira was necessary to make the dish work. The Depression also undercut the call for terrapin, which had become quite expensive. By the 1890s, they were up to $125 a dozen.

More recently, changing tastes and an aversion to arduous prep work are given as reasons why there's so little call for terrapin.

If the Maryland Club is not the only spot in Baltimore that still serves it, it's surely one of very few. Manager Katherine Mandaro says the club offers it only in the winter, and this year had the soup on the menu for only a few weeks. When Haussner and Hutzler's each closed, there went two other options for terrapin-soup fans. The Tidewater Inn in Easton is still in business, but has taken terrapin off the menu.

"It's an acquired taste," says Mandaro.

The word that usually comes up is gamey. Some terrapin fans compare it to muskrat, another Eastern Shore specialty that plays well with a somewhat limited audience.

Billy Martin, president of Martin Seafood wholesalers in Jessup, says that terrapin, like shad, pollock and bluefish, are too strong-tasting for broad appeal.

Martin says he hasn't filled a terrapin order in two years, and that was just one load of fewer than 80 for the Maryland Club. He recalls that his most profitable day in the trade was 30 years ago, when he got an order for 1,000 terrapin for the Mummer's Parade in Philadelphia.

Could he fill such an order today?

"That would be tough," says Martin, who has been in the business 40 years. "I wouldn't want to commit myself to it."

The reason why, in his view, is not so much a matter of the supply of terrapins as the labor to catch them. On short notice, he's not sure he'd be able to find enough watermen on the Eastern Shore to complete such an order.

The labor of cooking them is another matter. Making terrapin soup or stew - which traditionally is referred to only as "terrapin" - is several hours work.

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