Snapping Turtles and Founding Fathers

It’s nearly impossible to imagine Aaron Burr peacefully sharing a meal with Alexander Hamilton. But as it turns out, both of them used to belong to a gourmet organization called the “Hoboken Turtle Club.” They were joined by other Founding Fathers – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, to name a few – who apparently weren’t above a decent meal in good company.

The Hoboken Turtle Club Logo

The “Hoboken Turtle Club” was formed in 1796, giving it the distinction of being the country’s oldest social club. It was formed by Hoboken’s founder, Colonel Stevens, known for his many innovations in engineering, city planning, and botany, to name just a few fields! If that weren’t enough, Colonel John Stevens also raised chickens that he imported from Europe. But these prized chickens free-ranging on the banks of the Hudson soon started vanishing. As it turned out, the culprits in the mysterious disappearance of the chickens were snapping turtles, who snatched the unsuspecting immigrant birds and dragged them underwater. Stevens’ revenge on the sneaky reptiles was swift and harsh. They were caught and reprocessed into a turtle soup served to the members of the newly-formed “Hoboken Turtle Club.”

The “Hoboken Turtle Club” was organized around elaborate meals, starting with a gourmet breakfast served at 8 a.m. featuring “cocktails, stewed eels, fried eels, baked and fried bluefish, porterhouse steak and turtle steak.” The morning meal was washed down with up to ten cocktails, sometimes served by the pitcher. The dinner centered around the club’s piece-de-resistance: the turtle soup. It was invariably served at 4 p.m. According to the club rules instituted by John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and Aaron Burr, all members were obligated to contribute to meal preparation before eating. Since the soup was traditionally served over finely-chopped boiled eggs, it’s fair to assume that the Founding Fathers did the chopping! Although the recipe was a secret, one of the club’s cooks divulged that it required lots of veggies, yet only a few turtles.

If you never tasted turtle soup but were curious, you might find it helpful that one of the club’s most-respected members compared its taste to that of fried seal’s liver and walrus bacon. If (for some odd reason) this description does not help, here is a newspaper article detailing the soup-consumption process:

“To receive a turtle soup you must first chop a hard boiled egg very fine in the bottom of your plate. Then you squeeze into the egg the juice of half a lemon, and pour into it, also, a teaspoon full of mellow old Otard brandy from a bottle, which furnishes you a drink at the same time. The egg is to prepare the plate, and the drink is to prepare the stomach. Then your plate is filled with soup, and while the egg struggles from the bottom to float on the surface, you lay aside all earthly thoughts, forgive all your enemies, and forget all your creditors and put a teaspoon full of it into your mouth. Then you remove the spoon and shut your eyes, and your soul, on the wings of sensuous thought, passes outward into lotus land, and for a time you are lost in a dream that is so still, so perfect, and so all absorbing that you wish, lazily and sadly, it might never end. But you swallow the soup and open your eyes, discover that the face of nature is unchanged, and then, your intellect having reasserted its sway, you conclude that the turtle, like the swan, yields its only perfect symphony in its death.”

A Day With the Hoboken Turtle Club – Scenes and Incidents of a Characteristic Dinner.Frank Leslie’s Illus. Newspaper, July 17, 1886.

The club moved from Hoboken to New York in the late 19th century and, after some years of nomadic existence, folded by the late 1930s. There are no more turtles or chickens in Hoboken. Even a restaurant called the “Hoboken Turtle Club” closed down. However, one can still find a few places in New York that bear the HTC logo in tribute to America’s oldest social club. Their motto – “Dum vivimus vivamus” – firmly insisted on life’s simpler pleasures: “As we journey through life, let us live by the way.”

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