When Cincinnatians think of native dishes that have been around for many generations– there’s a holy trinity of sorts – Cincinnati chili, goetta, and mock turtle soup. Both real turtle soup and mock turtle soup had been popular in Cincinnati amongst the German immigrants in Over the Rhine since the mid to late 19th century. Many references and advertisements in the German language newspapers show that turtle soup was served free with a beer at local bars like Peter Hubert’s Saloon in Cumminsville. Made with local snapping turtles, rather than the green sea turtles like the European and Louisianna versions, Cincinnati’s version was less chunky, less tomato-y, and also not served with sherry.
Turtle and mock turtle soup were both popular in America. By the Revolutionary war, turtle soup figured prominently in American cuisine. It was served at presidential inaugurations, and served on the first transcontinental trains. It is said that Cincinnati raised William Howard Taft liked it so much he brought his own turtle soup chef with him to the White House. Campbell’s soup even tried a canned version in the 1920s that didn’t last very long. Mock turtle soup’s popularity waned in the 1960s and it retained popularity in only a few regions.
As turtle meat became too expensive, hard to get, or protected, the mock turtle soup became more prevalent. Original recipes for this called meat that mimicked the texture of turtle meat – calf’s brains, whole calves heads, and the hooves and tails. Apparently a large snapping turtle is said to contain seven distinct kinds of meat, each reminiscent of pork, chicken, beef, shrimp, veal, fish or goat. That’s quite some variety on one animal! Some mock turtle soups even called for a mix of tripe, tendon and sweetbreads, sounding more like the ingredients in a Vietnamese pho than an American soup.
Mock Turtle soup was so popular in England that the Mock turtle became a character in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. The melancholy character had a turtle shell, with the parts of a calf used in the famous soup – head, hooves, and tail.
In Germany, mock turtle soup was popular in Oldenburg and Ammerland regions in Germany, dating back to the time of the union of the Kingdom of Hanover to the Kingdom of Great Britain, with the coronation in 1714 of Hanoverian born King George I . Not too surprising, many Cincinnati German immigrants were from the areas around Oldenburg in Westphalia /Hanover Germany, and brought this dish with them to Cincinnati.
Cincinnati has its own canned brand, Worthmore Mock Turtle soup, that’s been around since 1918. Phil Hock the founder, was a butcher downtown, but gave up the meat when sales of his turtle soup took off. The company now operates on the campus of the old Bruckmann Brewery at the foot of the Ludlow viaduct, and its smokestack blazoning Worthmore Soup can be seen deep into the Valley.
Cincinnati’s version of mock turtle soup is made with lean beef, hard boiled eggs, ketchup, and lemon or vinegar, and varying types of spices. Uniquely, Cincinnati’s version didn’t call for calf’s brains or off cuts of beef. Cincinnati was surrounded by both pork and beef slaughterhouses, so there was no shortage of meat in Greater Cincinnati in the 19th century. The soup is very sweet and sour or tangy and sort of like a German version of sweet and sour soup. It’s not chunky and has the consistency of Cincinnati’s famous chili. It’s even served with the same crunchy oyster crackers that are served alongside Cincinnati chili. Local family restaurants like the Hitching Post and Quatman’s Café still serve it as a standard dish.
Another local family has a recipe even older than Worthmore’s. The Woebkenburg family has been making mock turtle soup on an industrial scale for the St. Rita School for the Deaf’s annual festival since 1916. Clara Woebkenburg, along with fellow Altar Society members Adele Becker and Ann Listermann concocted the still secret family recipe. Clara’s grandson Michael Woebkenburg and fellow family member by marriage Ben Koenig, kept up the tradition, making 600 gallons of the delicacy yearly for the festival.
Although not as popular as it was when I was growing up, I still enjoy a warming tangy bowl of mock turtle soup in the cold weather months. This usually takes place on a visit to my parents’ house, who always have a stock of Worthmore mock turtle soup in their pantry with the required oyster crackers, and maybe a dollop of sour cream.
As a reference, below is my great grandmother’s mock turtle soup, that my own grandmother made. This recipe probably came from her own mother, Philomena Krebs Brosey, and is at least 100 years old
Great Grandmother, Katherine Brosey Muchorowski’s Turtle Soup
2 lbs. each of ground beef, veal and pork
1 bottle of catsup
3 tablespoons of salt
¼ tsp of pepper
8 oz. red wine
Up to 6 lemons
1 tablespoon allspice or tea bag of mixed spices (what kind is not specified – must have been common soup spices available then)
1 cup dry browned flour
Up to 1 dozen hard boiled eggs, peeled
¼ cup of parsley (Grandma added that to her mother’s recipe)
Cook all meat until tender, covered with water about three hours.
Add the juice of 2 or 3, up to 6 lemons, as you like it. Grandma noted she puts in lemon slices in addition to the juice. Chop some carrots and add to the meat and water. Also add about 8 oz. red wine for every 3 gallons soup. Grandma notes that 2 cups of wine makes the soup tart.
If using the teabag of spices, simmer with the meat ½ hour and remove.
Brown 1 cup flour dry in a pan (not with butter or milk like a rue) About half hour before soup is done 2 ½ hours into the cooking, add the brown flour and eggs.