Cormac McCarthy’s Turtle Soup

In Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree, an Indian named Michael prepares a turtle soup for Suttree. First, catch the turtle. Then, kill the turtle, making sure to discard its head–

The Indian braced his feet and swung it up dripping from the river and onto the rocks and it squatted there watching them, its baleful pig’s eyes blinking. It was tied through the lower jaw with a section of wire and the Indian took hold of the wire and tugged at it. The turtle bated and hissed, its jaws gasped. The Indian had out his pocketknife and now he opened it and he pulled the turtle’s obscene neck out taut and with a quick upward motion of the blade severed the head. Suttree involuntarily drew back. The turtle’s craggy head swung from the wire and what lay between the braced forefeet was a black and wrinkled dog’s cunt slowly pumping gouts of near black blood. The blood ran down over the stones and dripped in the water and the turtle shifted slowly on the rock and started toward the river. The Indian undid the wire and flung the head into the river . .  .

Appetizing, no? Now that you’ve thrown the bloody head in the river (or your garbage can or wherever you throw turtle heads), it’s time to dress the beast–

Suttree laid the turtle on the rock and the Indian scouted about him until he came up with a goodsized stone.

Watch out, he said.

Suttree stepped back.

The Indian raised the stone and brought it down upon the turtle’s back. The shell collapsed with a pulpy buckling sound.

I never saw a turtle dressed before, said Suttree. But the Indian had knelt and was cutting away the broken plates of shell with his pocketknife and pitching them into the river. He pulled the turtle’s meat up off the plastron and gouged away the scant bowels with his thumb. He skinned out the feet. What hung headless in his grip as he raised it aloft was a wet gray foetal mass, a dim atavism limp and dripping.

Plenty of meat there, said the Indian. He laid it out on the rock and bent and swished the blade of his knife in the river.

Okay. Now that you’ve removed the shell and gouged away the scant bowels with your thumbs, it’s time to prepare the wet gray foetal mass.

Put him in a pot and cook him slow. Lots of vegetables. Lots of onions. I got my own things I put in.

Got it? Lots of onions. Slow cook that dim, limp, dripping atavism. The fact that the Indian has his “own things” that he puts in implies a call to the reader to experiment with the recipe. And how did Suttree like his turtle?

He spooned up a piece of the meat and cradled it in his mouth to cool it. He chewed it. It was succulent and rich, a flavor like no other.

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6 comments

  1. Maurice · November 24, 2010

    I can identify with this story …….. almost. Here is my experience: Many years ago I was reading an article in a sports magazine. It gave instructions on how to catch a cooter (fresh water turtle in the south), how to clean a cooter and how to cook a cooter. I had the day off and my 5 year old son and a family friened agreed that this would be a great adventure.

    We lived in Boca Raton, Florida at the time and I knew where many turtles (cooters) hung out so catching one turned out to be no problem. We brought the creature home still attached to the fishing line. I did the head removal thing by pulling the neck out with the fishing line. The turtle then crawled around in the grass headless for a while. A little too gory but we were now commited.

    In retrospect, I wish I had known about the Indians rock. My instructions said to run a sharp knife around the bottom of the shell and remove. That might work for a soft shell turtle but I had the hard shell variety. Having failed with the knife, I resorted to a hammer and wood chisel. That really made a mess. What was left of the meat had a ridge of fat around it. Since the turtle had dwelt in an algae filled canal the fat was a nice algae green shade. So much for cooking the cooter.

    I buried the remains, head, shell, meat and all im my 8 by 8 tomato garden. We were done with this project, I thought.

    At the time we had a dog named Rebel and of course she lived up to her name. About 4 days later when the aroma was just right, she dug up the carcass and deposited it on the carpet under the dining room table. I am done with do it yourself turtle soup and my wife still maintains a ban on turtle soup.

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    • Biblioklept · November 24, 2010

      Ha! Wow. Thanks for sharing this story, Maurice.

      I have a turtle crushing story too:

      When I was about 12 and my brother was about 9, he had a pet turtle, a small little thing. One day, he was cleaning the terrarium, and the thing up and bit him–hard. It wouldn’t let go. My brother went into a rage; he was scared, I think, waving his arms about and screaming. I batted the turtle down. My brother picked up a brick (we were in our back yard) and smashed the turtles shell. It was totally gross.

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  2. Linda DL · November 24, 2010

    Years ago I watched my grandfather kill and break a turtle’s shell, prep the meat and make turtle soup. As a child, I was in shock, but that soup was so yummy. He put lots of wine in the soup and I also felt like an adult when I ate it with the forbidden brew. He never wasted a thing he hunted. Many a time I watch him kill and skin wild rabbits and squirrels. Also good.

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  3. Miguel · November 24, 2010

    I remember a similar description in a Larry McMurtry’s “Dead Man Walk”.
    “The Great Western” cooked the turtle soup.

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