I had never seen one of these in the garden before

Sweet Tatorman's picture

While making my prebreakfast check of the garden I encountered the gal pictured below. This is the first time I have ever encountered a snapping turtle in the garden. Snapping turtles are known to travel long distances overland between bodies of water. I once saw one halfway up/down a mountain where it was at least 400 vertical feet to the top or bottom with no bodies of water in between. I did not know about the top of the mountain but at the bottom it would be a long way to any body of water I know of.

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The strangeness of seeing a snapping turtle where one shouldn't be reminded me of something I haven't thought of in years.

In South Carolina, whenever it rained heavily, a river formed flowing from the yard next door (uphill) across our yard and then out into the yard on the other side (downhill). There was a low, swampy area.

I was digging and discovered a blue ... creature? This would have been between 1996 and 2000. It had a hard shell like armor?
It was about the size of IIRC an action figure but much bulkier.

Some sort of land crayfish? It looked alien.

I ran into the house to get Bill and of course when we got back, it was gone. I never saw it again and I looked, digging over that area so if it was a lost toy, I should have found it again. Guidebooks were no help.

There are many strange things in the world and animals do not follow the neat arcs we ascribe to them.

Sounds like a juvenile armadillo....? Or a blue crab?

ClareBroommaker's picture

I call them crawdads. They can be blue, but I've never seen a blue one. Where I grew up there was an area of our yard that was just as you described. Rain from elsewhere drained to the area, but most of the time was solid ground, solid enough to mow most of the summer. Sometimes we'd have to skip mowing due to the mud. Crawdads lived in their burrows stippled all over that area. They did not need standing or flowing water all the time. Burrows could be spotted by the mounds of mud or dried out mud that looked kind of like giant earthworm castings. Sorry, but as a child, I enjoyed crunching those crawdad chimneys underfoot. Hope I did not cause them any trouble.

I looked at pictures of blue crawdads online and maybe?
I don't remember seeing the claws but the rest of it looks something like what I remember.

The land description, however, is very similar to what we had but I do not recall the mud burrows. On the other hand, we had ground squirrels/chipmunks and they burrowed everywhere. Crawdad tunnels would have fit right in.

Thank you!

ClareBroommaker's picture

Can't understand the scale of the photo. I know those things get big.

Sweet Tatorman's picture

Long dimension of the shell was a foot or so. Snapping turtles have very long necks; well over half the shell length which they use to good effect as ambush predators not unlike the way some frog species use their tongue. I would say that this one with neck and tail extended would be ~2 1/2 feet. Live weight was right at 8 lbs.
I did not grow up on a farm. Neither my parents hunted and neither to I. As a consequence, a skill deficit I have is lack of experience turning live animals [fish excepted] into kitchen ready items. Addressing this deficit I have a mental do list of animals to butcher at least once. In the past decade or so I've checked off chickens and rattlesnakes but had not yet done a turtle. I figured that fortune was telling me that the time had come. Youtube was really a blessing for this task. I am glad I watched a couple. Bottom line is that getting the meat out of a snapping turtle is **really** hard work. I almost threw in the towel on this task several times but persevered. Even so, I settled for just the leg meat which I would estimate to be 2/3 to 3/4 of the total meat extractible by someone who knew what they were doing and had sharper knives than mine. I got 2 1/2 lbs of meat from a 8 lb live weight so there may have been about 3 1/2 lbs for someone that was competent and had greater stamina. Did I mention these are really hard work? They also continue to fight you hours after dead and even post head removal. See photo below. This was taken about an hour after being shot point-blank through the top of the head with a 22 cal hollow point. Note two things. She is still fighting and there is no exit wound on the bottom of the head. These are tough critters.

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Are you going to save and reuse the shell?
I know that tortoiseshell was highly valued and used for combs, jewelry, and containers.

Since you've got the shell, maybe you can do something with it.

Sweet Tatorman's picture

The shell was discarded along with the innards and unrecovered meat. I noticed when I walked by that spot in the woods yesterday that all was gone, even the shell taken by unknown forest animal.
AFAIK, tortoiseshell items were made from the large marine species with the Hawksbill turtle most desired. That is one that I am very familiar with as I once lived on an island where they came ashore to lay their eggs. I believe that this species also nested on portions of the coast of your former home State of South Carolina.
On a related note, a few years ago you offered some useful guidance on the various editions of "Joy of Cooking". I can report that the 1975 edition was not very useful regarding turtles and that by 1997 turtles apparently no longer existed as there is no mention of them.

I'm looking at my 1953 copyright Joy and they discuss terrapins, turtles, and snails.
Here's what they say about turtles:

Turtles are bought alive. Sometimes they grow to a huge size.
Cut off the head of a snapping or soft-shelled turtle. Place the turtle in cold water for 1/2 hour, or hang it from a nail, neck down, until the blood no longer drips. Follow the preceding rule for Terrapin, cooking the turtle from 1/2 to 1 hour. Discard the intestines.
Cut the turtle meat into small pieces. Reserve all meat juices for later use. The turtle meat, eggs, thinly sliced liver, juices and stock may be used in stew.
Follow the rule for Terrapin Stew, above, and see Turtle Soup, page 55. If you wish to be highly amused, read the turtle episode in William Alexander Percy's fascinating "Lanterns on the Levee."

They have a LOT more to say about Terrapin, including a recipe for Terrapin stew.

If you're going to continue to cook unusual animals, you might want to invest in older cookbooks that address what to do with them. They're don't seem to be as many modern game cookbooks. I don't know if modern game cookbooks cover squirrels, opossums, and so on.

Do tell us how your snapping turtle tasted.

ClareBroommaker's picture

I remember my father-in-law catching turtles in the brackish bay and then making turtle soup. He made some nostalgic references to eating turtle while in the navy. But he also said he would not cook turtle again because it was too much work for the return.

In the Navy, the turtles may have given more return for the effort.

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Sweet Tatorman's picture

A bunch of wusses those modern people ;-)
*Does not* taste like chicken which seems to be a common meme.
I had enough to have four tries at cooking it. Since I do not eat meat often as an entree, less often than once a week, I chose to freeze half of it for later use. My first attempt was less that satisfactory as I got distracted with other activities and over cooked it baking in the oven. Overcooking a very lean meat in dry heat is not a recipe for good outcome. Even so, it was better than some "mystery meat" I have eaten while traveling off the beaten path in lesser developed parts of the world. That, however, is a very low bar. Since this is an inherently tough meat, on my second go at it I simmered for 1 1/2 hours in a 2:1 water/vinegar solution which served to tenderize it somewhat. Once cool enough to handle the meat was very easily pulled from the bone. I then cut into smaller pieces and briefly seared in a hot frypan and then seasoned with BBQ sauce. I would rate this as acceptably palatable but not notably good. This is a meat that benefits from being strongly seasoned since to my palate at least it has a bit of a "gamey" flavor. I suspect that this meat would be a good candidate for a slow cooking method such as a crockpot.

I suspect you're relearning the olde timey methods.

My 1953 Joy cooks terrapins and turtles as soup or stew and it must be for a reason.

We forget that old cooking methods for specific meat animals were developed for a reason.

lathechuck's picture

I was out hiking with some friends, when someone pointed into the canal and said "That's one BIG turtle down there!" I looked. I couldn't see very clearly, but I thought I saw an ordinary turtle next to a mass of water weeds. Then it moved, and I realized that I was only seeing the HEAD of a big snapping turtle, swimming out from the weeds.

Did you get meat off of the tail? That looks like a good bet, to me (as well as the legs).

Sweet Tatorman's picture

There is definitely meat to be had on the tail, perhaps about equal to half of that on a single leg. I did not recover it though in part due to poor work sequence on this task. Had I wanted the meat I should have skinned the portion of the tail from which the meat was to be recovered before I separated the hind legs from the carapace with tail attached. Skinning the tail would have been easier while still firmly attached to the rest of the turtle. Making and recognizing mistakes such as this was largely the point of the exercise in case I ever had a compelling need to dress a turtle. In the absence of such a need it is unlikely I will be doing it again.