Ghost in the shell

(Illustration by Will Lytle)

(Illustration by Will Lytle)

I once belonged to a supper club. It started simply enough, a few neighbors getting together once a month to share a meal. It evolved into a competition to see who could serve at least one unusual or exotic entrée or dessert. We endured a flan that never raised, an Indian curry dish so hot it was served with plain yogurt and pineapple juice to put out the flames, chitterlings that only a southern palate would enjoy. And, of course, a medley of cocktails, which turned out to be the most popular — put enough proof into anything and worms, bugs or strange seeds are easily ignored, especially after the second drink.

It was the last time I was to host, as I was moving out of the area, and I was really determined to serve up an impressive fare. I worked for a local newspaper and Doriane, the lady who cleaned the offices, was French. Since French food was one area no one had ventured into, I figured this might be interesting. Doriane barely spoke English and I had one year of high school French. Together, we put together a recipe for turtle soup.

Most ingredients seemed reasonable; the part that was the biggest hurdle was her insistence that the turtle be added to the boiling water alive. I lived near a pond and often saw turtles basking in the sun. I was confident they would be easy prey. Not so! I had all but given up on my French gastronomical surprise when the day before my debut meal, a rather large turtle wandered across my driveway. It was my lucky day, not his. He spent the night in an old terrarium. The next morning I started this new endeavor with much zeal. I found my biggest pot, boiled the water and tossed my turtle in. He tried to climb out, only by placing a lid on the pot was I able to keep him in. It was at that moment the regret started. It is one thing to stalk and take down creatures in their element — that is a sport I grew up with. But this reptile never had a chance; he was out potted, out boiled and unfortunately outwitted by a French translation gone awry.


The soup was rather tasty; turtle meat is very white, a bit chewy, maybe a cross between fish and chicken, maybe not. No one gave rave reviews, barely tasted it, adding much to my grieving psyche. I had sacrificed this shelled creature for a group of yuppies who would have enjoyed “my turtle” if I had marinated it in booze and served it over ice, with pond water.

What Doriane left out was the fact that the French use little two-or-three-inch turtles, not the herculean terrapin who tried in vain to claw his way out of that boiling caldron.

The memory follows me yet today; so many years ago, I hate to remember. But it left me with something else: I cannot go past any turtle making its way across the highway without feeling compelled to stop and take it safely home to my backyard pond. Guilt, remorse, restitution, call it what you might. I may never cook turtle soup again, but I will have a pond full of creatures, safe from the highway and my pot.

The eastern box turtle is the most well-known turtle, and is native to the Hudson Valley. It is easily identified by its bright markings. Box turtles have a high, dome-shaped carapace (top part of shell) and a hinged plastron (bottom part). They are usually dark brown or olive-colored with bright orange or yellow patterns. The male will usually have red eyes and the female will have yellowish-brown eyes. They can grow up to eight inches long. Box turtles have a down-turned beak. Eastern box turtles are terrestrial, which means they live on land. They can be found in forests or where there is moisture. Female box turtles will nest in the summer, laying three to eight eggs. Box turtles are omnivorous: They eat slugs, snails, earthworms, wild strawberries and blackberries, mushrooms, insects (such as grasshoppers and crickets), and carrion (dead animals, such as ducks or frogs).

Eastern box turtles will stay in the same area, as long as they have everything they need (food, water and other turtles to mate with). Some people used to test this by marking a turtle’s shell to see if they could find the same turtle in later years. You should not do this, because you could damage the turtle’s shell. Turtles need a healthy shell to survive. Box turtles are some of the only turtles which can completely close their shell, protecting them from predators.

Another way to identify turtles, without hurting them, is to sketch the pattern of their shell on a piece of paper. Keep your drawing safe and take it out later on if you think you found the same turtle.

Barbara Buono’s column appears monthly.